Progress and Fairness

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We awoke this morning to a new political era. Many Abbey students were not alive the last time we had a Labour government. Our recent political history, since 1979, has come in blocks: 18 years of Conservatives, 13 of Labour, 14 Conservatives. In each case, enough time for young people to be born and become politically aware under a single regime: so that change feels seismic.

Given the vagaries of our political system, that is both true and untrue. In the last election, Labour received 32% of the vote, and lost heavily. In this election they won 34% of the vote, and won in a landslide.

For all of us in The Abbey community, this election has been distorted by one policy from one party: Labour’s proposal to add VAT to independent school fees. We wrote to all Abbey families last week to explain the arguments against this proposal, outline what we have done to combat it so far, and what we intended to do.

Today, let us speak plainly. At The Abbey, we believe passionately in social progress, betterment and fairness. I believe, with profound regret, that Labour’s policy achieves none of these things. It is based on the false premise that independent schools enjoy some sort of loophole. The truth is that all of education is VAT-exempt, from nurseries to university. The policy seeks to target one of an economic sector selectively, and in a way that is specifically prejudicial. Businesses that pay VAT can reclaim it on their capital costs. Labour have indicated that independent schools may be singled out and prevented from doing this.

The policy risks untold damage to one part of the educational landscape while bringing questionable benefit to another. Take an independent school with say 500 students and an income of roughly £10m. That £10m is derived from the post-tax income of parents – and in the case of those attracted from overseas by the strength of the independent sector, this is money flowing into the UK economy. Some 60%-70% of the school’s income is then spent on the salaries of teachers and estates teams and caterers and cleaners, and re-taxed accordingly. More of that tax is available to spend, because none of it is going on state provision for the 500 children at the heart of the matter.

Labour’s policy may drive some children out of independent education and into the maintained sector – and some staff, too. Every time this happens, the net picture for the government worsens. Instead of being a tax-paying contributor to the economy, the staff member becomes a public servant of the taxpayer, and the child a burden on expenditure. The resource base of the government shrinks, and the costs it faces grow.

Meanwhile the many independent school parents who hold firm to the commitment they have made for their children’s education are likely to pay for VAT-inflated school fees at least in part by reducing their discretionary spend – where it would have attracted VAT anyway. So when families leave the sector, the government will lose money. When they stay, in many cases, it may gain little. This policy is likely to raise much less than claimed and may cost money overall.

It is often said that only small numbers of families are affected, but the truth is that this touches a much greater proportion than commonly assumed. Generally people quote a figure of 7% of children as being in independent schools, but by Sixth Form level, it is not far off 20%.

In simple terms, we believe the proposal to be unfair and wrong. Educational improvement is not achieved by attacking independent schools. It is not progressive to seek equality by holding some back, rather than helping all forwards. We made this case as passionately as we could during the election and will continue to make it, collaboratively but powerfully, over coming months. Meanwhile we are committed to doing all in our power to support families, and to sharing our plans as soon as we have clarity over the proposals themselves.

Over the last few days, I was part of two graduation ceremonies that were the most powerful possible reminders of the enduring value of an Abbey education. The first was Senior School graduation for our Upper VI leavers; the second, Junior School graduation for Upper III.

They were both glorious expressions of individuality and personality. The Senior School ceremony began with a student-led concert. There were bagpipes, drum solos, singalong classics from the rock band. The Junior School graduation saw every student take the stage while one of their peers shared what makes that individual special – and they all shared the memories they will treasure from school.

The confidence, spirit and generosity on display in both ceremonies come close to the heart of what we are here to offer: what parents seek for their children. We will continue to champion our students, and help them develop the qualities that will see them become leaders in the world, committed to social improvement. We’ll continue to champion the cause of girls and women both within and beyond our community, via the ARCH programme that has already reached over 80 schools and thousands of young people. And we’ll continue to do so in the closest possible partnership with families. This cause matters, and these young people matter. However the coming months and years work out, that won’t change.

Will le Fleming, Head

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