14 May 2024

Monday Briefing 13th May 2024: How High

Monday Briefing 13th May 2024: How High

When are luxury goods not luxury goods?

When they become a necessity.

That is not in any way a joke, although the phrasing may have led you to believe it was.

But if you are in the mood for some merriment, in the words of Tim Leunig and his article about the proposed application of VAT to Private School fees in Schoolsweek over the weekend, “it is nice to have look over the fence once in a while, especially when you can have a chuckle at a sector we are all too often envious of.”

Mr Leunig points out that luxury cars cost three times as much as a Ford or a Vauxhall, and because Private Schools ‘often’ cost three times as much as a state school’s funding level, then they should be classed as a luxury item too. All of them. Every single one. Regardless of context. Whether they triple the funding level or not.

I’d gladly invite Mr Leunig to take a look over our fence at EIC to see whether the education of the students here really is as amusing as he suggests.

What would he see?

Firstly, I hope that he’d notice just how happy the students are - that they had an air of confidence and that they were proud to come to the College. I hope he’d notice amongst them a sense of empowerment, that they were inclusive, supportive and helpful to one another. I hope that he’d see them revel in the freedoms they’ve been given to express themselves.

I’d hope, in behaving this way, that they didn’t give onlookers too much of a perception of privilege. Yes, many of our students wear expensive clothes, but they often have only a few outfits on rotation - and they wear what they do as their rather fragile self confidence needs Adidas armour or a shield of Nike to protect their own sense of self-regard.

Secondly, I’d want him to speak to each and every one of them, in the hope that he could start to understand their educational journey to this point, and that his opening question would be ‘what does your school mean to you?’

Here, he’d get an array of answers, but I’m sure that all of them would explain the transformative nature of the institution. They were not always this happy.

He may hear from one of our Year 9 students about how long it took his parents to find the right setting - nurturing enough that his autism was understood and supported, yet academic enough to allow him to thrive. He may also hear about how his mother was in tears when hearing the news that he’d successfully passed a trial and had earned his place here. He would probably then go on to talk about how he’d heard that Napoleon invented the baguette as a means of feeding an army on the move. And then he’d discuss something about Nixon’s poor character, and then he’d find something else to go on and on about. Because that’s what he does.

He may hear from another, in Year 10, about how they had felt unable to attend school regularly in the state sector, even though they were keen to do their best. It was just the sheer size of the school along with its rigid rules and regulations which made it so difficult, and then when you get into a struggle to get up in the morning, it all just unravels, so you feel like never going in. But then you find somewhere with a more adaptive approach, which understands that some days are harder than others, and as long as you try your best, and communicate your feelings candidly, then you’ll always have a place here.

He might get to meet one of our Year 11s, who, in spite of his obvious anxieties at the start of the exam season, would tell him that he used to be scared to leave his house, and was afraid to go to school because of the gang culture there. He might tell him of the time when our Head of GCSE saw him at the train station and helped protect him from a group of boys from his old school who openly threatened him. He may then hear about the boy’s dreams and ambitions, and how his natural talent for writing, along with his interest in Sociology and Psychology has given him the ambition of a career in Criminology.

He could bump into the four Saudi students in Year 11 which moved here when their local school closed down last summer, each and every one of their parents panicking about their GCSE chances given the mid course move. I’m sure they would all tell him that the smaller classes and closer teacher attention have set their minds at ease about their ability to succeed. A couple of them might also tell him that they felt a lot better recently about having the time to discuss their worries with their Computer Science teacher about life after GCSEs, and the plans that they both want to fulfil.

He may have the chance to speak with one of our Year 12 students who failed English Language last year, and so missed out on the requirements at their previous school to continue to A Levels. They would undoubtedly talk about how they’ve benefited from the small class English as an Additional Language sessions which we offer, and scored highest in our mock exams because of her work ethic more than anything else. She’d likely, proudly, tell him that she was pleased to act as a judge at a debating competition last week for Year 4,5 and 6 pupils and will be doing so again for their Year 8,9 and 10 counterparts.

I hope that before he leaves, he should take the chance to meet a Year 13 student, and one in particular comes to mind, who is one of the 23 individuals on an EHCP which we support. This student is without doubt our biggest ‘turnaround’ story. On the verge of exclusion at the end of his Year 12, it was clear that he needed more time to mature and develop. Thanks to new friends and our support, he found an entirely new outlook on life and transformed into a driven, motivated presence, part of the Student Leadership Team, and an excellent role model.

These students have travelled many different paths to get to us, and I’m sure that without the College in their lives, they would be in a far worse place than they are now. What matters most, of course, is their opinion. Where do they want to be educated?

I know first hand from my connections within the Independent Schools Association that ours is not a unique profile of students. There are hundreds of small schools up and down the country which form a lifeline for students, rather than a luxury.

I am not opposed to any attempts to close the attainment gap. In fact, I’m very much in favour of any new ideas. A blanket tax on all private schools, regardless of the context of their settings and circumstances, requires more nuance.

Only last week I was speaking to a coordinator at Ealing Local Authority in the hope that we can work more closely to support more students, to help them to become inspired by education again, and to help them to be the best they can be.

This is very much in tune with one response to Leunig’s tweet which promoted the article, and provided a far fairer solution, to my mind:

“Is this not actually a great opportunity to establish facility sharing between private and closely located secondary schools? Labour could even actively facilitate with mechanisms for the VAT charge to be offset ‘in kind.”

Indeed it is an opportunity - a golden opportunity to even up, to share resources and expertise and to build a better education system, which can support all learners, both in the state and independent sector. 

There is room for both to thrive whilst helping one another. 

There is, after all, a shared goal here - that every young person fulfils their potential.

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