We have already witnessed the sad spectacle of good schools with fine histories and dedicated and talented staff going to the wall. Most people who follow the sector fear there will be many more.
The vulnerability of schools became apparent sometime before Covid hit. It is quite clear that independent schools have few friends in politics – even in the Conservative party. A dramatic hike in pension contributions foisted on independent schools by the government this year, and the underlying threat to change schools’ fiscal positions with regards to VAT and business rates mean that the future for many fine schools is looking bleak. This is particularly true of smaller provincial schools with local catchments. The cynic in me says the government is assuming that these increased costs will be passed straight on to parents as a means to tax the middle classes without being seen to do so. The reality at the coalface is that school fees are already expensive, and many schools are worried that they will start losing pupils if the fees go much higher.
Part of the vulnerability of schools rests in their governance structure. A school governor usually takes on the role of trustee of a charity. This is a very different role to being the director of a limited company for example, and this is especially significant when it comes to risk appetite. If a limited company goes bust, the pain rests with the shareholders and creditors. If a school goes bust, questions may well be asked of the governors individually by the Charity Commission. The buck stops with the governors in other words, and this presents a very strong disincentive to have another roll of the die and carry the school on if things are looking precarious in the present and bleak in the future. It’s easier and safer to close down in other words. Personally I think this is a tragedy.
Many people who see private schools as harbingers of inequality will rejoice at the potential demise of the independent sector. But the last thing Boris needs is to find state school places for more than half a million displaced children in a hurry. Perhaps a more benign approach to private schools (of whom most of the government are products) is in order?