Unlocking education

David Hanson | IAPS | Autumn 2016
Prep school education should not be restricted by the ability to pay fees. David Hanson, IAPS Chief Executive, explains how government could unlock education and benefit huge numbers of children.
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We've found a way for children to receive the best possible education but unfortunately, government is standing in the way. That might sound like scaremongering, but it’s entirely true. We have proposed a series of tax credits to take the strain off the state education sector, and encourage families to send their children to an independent school. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it would save the taxpayer money but the scheme has not been taken forward by government.

At IAPS, we’re proud of what we do. Our schools are some of the best in the world, and we actively promote the highest standards in education. As a parent, you know that IAPS schools represent a gold standard in primary education. Our schools recruit the best staff and – even though each of our schools is independent and has its own ethos – they are all committed to delivering an excellent, well-rounded education for their pupils. I believe more children should be given the opportunity to benefit from this education.

Here’s how my proposal works: if you earn £30,000 or less, the Government would give you a tax credit to the value of £5,000 to send your child to an independent school. Why would they do this? Well, put simply, £5,000 is less than it costs the Treasury to educate a child in the state sector. In London, for example, it can cost the taxpayer over £8,000 to send a child to a state school for one year: our proposal nearly halves that.

Not only does this system provide the best possible education at the start of a child’s life, but it also saves the Government money in real terms. Furthermore, it is a system that works regardless of your income. If you earn any amount between £30,000 and £100,000 per year, you will receive a percentage of the ‘£5,000 tax credit’, proportionate to your income. You might choose to seek out a bursary to pay for the rest, or indeed fund the remainder of the fees yourself.

The idea of government paying for private education might sound counterintuitive, but it isn’t an alien concept: it is already happening in countries such as Hong Kong, Finland and Sweden. Each country sees over 90% of private school funding coming from government funds and these countries have a far higher rate of social mobility than in the United Kingdom. As an example, Finland has the fourth-highest rate of social mobility in the world and it is also ranked as the seventh happiest nation. Sweden has a very similar arrangement, where independent schools are funded from a special state budget while still accepting donations from private individuals to top-up the rest of the fees.

In recent years, our politicians have looked to Sweden for ideas on how to improve our own education system. Sadly, the solution they adopted overlooked the role which could be played by independent schools. Instead, the Coalition Government pushed forward a programme of Free Schools: independent, state-funded schools created from scratch, often by groups of parents. Whilst laudable, the Free Schools programme has proved to be extremely expensive. Free Schools require millions of pounds of investment in new buildings and facilities to establish, but if the Government partnered with our independent schools, this money could be saved. Our schools, our staff, and our experience is already in place and they are established centres of excellence. In addition, with our tax credit proposal, the state would only ever need to contribute a maximum of £5,000 per child, per annum – potentially saving even more money compared to the per child cost of a pupil at a Free School.

Of course, critics will point to a scheme like this and accuse it of being nothing more than a subsidy for independent education. But that criticism misses the point as our proposal saves money – only political ideology stands in its way. I have had private, in-depth conversations with senior politicians from all sides on the matter of education tax credits. The suggestion has always been warmly supported but there seems to be a lack of political will to make it a reality.

I am not the first person to suggest that we should harness the potential of the independent sector and make it more accessible. However, other high profile proposals have failed to gain any real momentum for particular reasons which my proposal addresses. For example, the Sutton Trust has promoted greater access for bright pupils from poor backgrounds into high performing independent senior schools. It is a laudable ambition, but has a number of attendant problems. Firstly, research shows that if one wishes to make a profound positive difference in learning then one invests early in the primary age. Secondly, the Sutton Trust scheme is considered by some to be politically ‘toxic’ because it is about creating access to academically selective schools. Despite what we might wish, all children cannot be above average and I would argue that all children, regardless of their ability, should have access to the finest possible education. Finally, the Sutton Trust scheme is limited in scope because, if adopted by government, it would only be available to a small number of pupils going to a small number of schools. By contrast, IAPS has 620 schools spread across the UK and we are suggesting providing access to all of them.

Another key proposal in the past has been education ‘vouchers’ but again this is fraught with difficultly, not least because in other countries where vouchers have been introduced, the Government which is paying for them then tends to tell the schools what to do. Our independence from the Government’s Department for Education (DfE) has been one of the most critical factors in our success. My proposal is entirely about the private tax affairs of the parent and HMRC. As far as both the school and the DfE are concerned, they would not need to know who is, and who is not, a recipient of tax relief. And for those parents on the lowest incomes who would stand to gain full relief, any bursary support from the school would be a private matter, as it is today. It is worth remembering that an independent survey a few years ago found that almost 80% of adults would not oppose an increase in the use of government funds to enable children from lower-income families to attend private schools. In debates about education, grammar schools are often cited as springboards for social mobility. Yet we must not forget that in a child’s development, the prep school years are critical. If a parent has to choose between sending their child to an independent school for either the prep or senior years, it is the prep years which will normally improve their development the most. This proposal has the potential to radically improve the life chances of a significant number of our children and give them the skills and knowledge to flourish in life.

Education tax credits are a simple solution to a complex problem. We are already paying for state education through our taxes: wouldn’t you rather know that money was being spent on the best possible education, at the best possible schools, and providing the best possible value for money?

David Hanson is the Chief Executive of IAPS.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Attain.

About The Author

David Hanson

David Hanson is Chief Executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS). Around 650 of the world's leading prep schools are in membership of the Association, which represents a gold standard among schools.

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