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My sister-in-law works in the eighteen-strong development office of a prestigious private high school just outside Boston, where the tuition fees for a day pupil are in excess of $46,000 per annum. The majority of parents pay these fees, and are expected to (and generally do) make an additional contribution to the annual fund, typically between $10,000 and $20,000 per annum. Of course, the development office is successful in raising substantial capital gifts as well. This is made possible by the professionalism of fundraisers and a cultural expectation that those that can, will give. And it makes possible an impressive level of bursary support for pupils whose parents cannot afford the fees. But it has squeezed out the middle, and though considerable efforts are made to ensure that differences are not obvious, the school is now the preserve of the very well-heeled (the majority) and those of quite modest means (the minority).

In the UK, we have not arrived at that point, but we are travelling towards it. In many respects, that may be a good thing: the right to be educated (and, correspondingly, to educate) independently of the state in my view comes with a responsibility to ensure that independent education makes a positive contribution to society generally, and to social mobility in particular. (Incidentally, the Government’s linkage of that responsibility to charitable status is entirely misconceived: yes charities must operate for the public benefit, but schools must work positively towards social mobility, regardless of their charitable status. Otherwise, not only will charity law be contorted by political expediency, but the market will drive independent education into the limb of the sector exempted from the very responsibility the Government seeks to promote.) But the central questions of affordability and access perhaps require a more imaginative response. This may well lie in partnerships – both horizontal (with local schools) and vertical (with Universities and employers) – as well as direct access; and in commercialism as much as traditional fundraising. 

My hope is that the Government will see greater value in the use of carrot than stick, and will recognise that most independent schools take their responsibility to society seriously, and that mandate and dictat will convert voluntary enthusiasm into grudging compliance, to much weaker effect. Much will doubtless be revealed in 2017.

Have a very happy Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

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