It is hard to imagine a more exclusive chain of prep schools than the one that has been entrusted with the education of the third-in-line to the throne. That privilege has been bestowed on Thomas’s, a group of four London public-school feeders, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have chosen to send Prince George.
With annual fees of about £18,000, Thomas’s, Battersea, is reassuringly expensive and boasts fittingly palatial facilities, including the Grade II-listed Great Hall Theatre, a gymnasium, a ballet room, a rooftop playground and a one-acre courtyard garden sporting an Astroturf pitch.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that its sister school Thomas’s, Kensington, has recently benefited from a share of a £175,000 state handout.
Under a Department for Education scheme, approved in 2014, Thomas’s in Kensington was given £4,000 a year to pay for one of its teachers to teach Latin to pupils from two state primary schools once a week. One of the stated benefits of the programme was to put local state children on an even footing with prep school pupils applying for places at private secondary schools.
Thomas’s was one of 15 independent schools, including Merchant Taylors’ (Mandarin and maths lessons), King’s School Canterbury (science) and Shrewsbury School (coding), taking part in a programme to “raise the standard of teaching and learning in key subject areas in state schools”.
For many parents who can’t afford to pay for their children’s education it might seem odd that private schools receive state handouts, especially as they already benefit from very generous tax savings worth up to £2.5bn a year.
As charities, Thomas’s and the other participating schools are under a legal duty to make a contribution to the community. Yet the state, through a number of government departments, pays private schools, including some of the best known and wealthiest in the country, more than £200m a year.
Half of this subsidy goes on the “continuity of education allowance”, under which diplomats or military personnel can apply to have their children’s fees paid at, for example, Eton or Marlborough College.
Figures for 2017 show that the Ministry of Defence spent £80m a year so that the children of senior military officers could attend elite public schools. The costs are not small. For example, Tony Blair’s old school, Fettes, was paid £441,027 and Eton almost £270,000. While the overall annual figure of £80m remains almost unchanged from previous years, Eton, Harrow (£183,000), Marlborough College (£346,000) and Shrewsbury School (£231,000) have all enjoyed bumper years, seeing increased MoD payments.
The Foreign Office runs a similar scheme for diplomats. A parliamentary question answered in November last year revealed that £27m of taxpayers’ money was spent on the school fees of diplomats’ children in 2017. Sevenoaks School in Kent alone received almost £500,000.
The purpose of the two schemes is to ensure that children of diplomats and the military top brass do not suffer from a disrupted education when their parents are serving abroad. But closer scrutiny of government figures reveals that almost half of the personnel who benefit have UK-based jobs. And because participant families must pay part of the fees themselves, most ordinary soldiers can’t afford to join the scheme. This means that it is almost exclusively the senior officer and diplomatic corps whose children get to go to the elite expensive schools like Eton, Harrow and Marlborough College.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, who asked the Commons question, says: “At a time when per-pupil funding for state secondary schools is stuck at just over £6,000 per year, and headteachers are having to send begging letters to parents to buy basic supplies, it seems extraordinary that the Foreign Office is funding the private education of its staff’s children to the tune of more than £30,000 per pupil every year. That level of subsidy is hard to justify at a time when the ordinary schools budget is under such pressure.”
Private schools also benefit from the government’s music and dance scheme (MDS), an annual fund established to help “ensure that talented children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and families with limited financial means” have the opportunity to attend one of eight independent music or dance schools.
The scheme, which in 2017 paid private schools £31m in fees, was recently accused of contributing to arts elitism. Figures obtained by the Guardianshowed that, despite the aim to help disadvantaged young people, families earning up to £190,000 a year are receiving awards. Critics point to the substantial number of MDS award holders who come from independent prep schools.
Given the huge advantages that private schools have over their state counterpartsschools, is it fair that they are also subsidised to the tune of by the taxpayer?
Robert Halfon, the chairman of the House of Commons education select committee and a former pupil of Highgate School in north London, says that because there are too few state boarding schools to accommodate military children, the government has little choice but to support the private sector. “Children need a stable and continuous education while their parents are away,” he says. “In the case of the military, these children may not even know if their parent is ever coming home again.”
Nevertheless, Halfon understands the resentment taxpayers might feel towards subsidising fee-paying schools. He says: “If private schools gave more genuinely disadvantaged children the chance of a public-school education then people wouldn’t mind arrangements where the state pays fees of some middle-class children,” he says.
Halfon believes there should be a sliding scale of tax on all private schools. “At the moment bursary schemes tend to help children of relatively well-off families. Which is OK, but they also need to do more for genuinely disadvantaged children.” He proposes introducing a “levy”, akin to an apprenticeship scheme, to ensure “that kids from, say, a Harlow estate, have a chance to go to these schools”. He adds: “Lower-charging private schools would only have to apply a levy relative and in proportion to their annual fees.”
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, is also pressing for reform. “The Tories should have stuck to their own manifesto pledge and looked again at tax giveaways to private schools,” she says. “While the vast majority of schools face the worst budget cuts in a generation, ministers have taken no meaningful action on subsidies for the few that are run for private profit.”
Private schools themselves, which receive about £9bn in fees each year, argue that they already provide a £3.5bn saving to the state by educating more than 600,000 children outside of the state system. Julie Robinson, the general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, which represents private schools, says that subsidies, such as the music and dance scheme, support “many talented children who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to attend a full-time vocational establishment”.
Through bursaries and reduced fees, private schools “are increasingly widening access to lower-income families and disadvantaged children”, she adds.
But change has been glacial. Despite all this help, including state subsidies, today only 1% of children (6,000 pupils) attending private schools receive a completely free education.
Professor Francis Green, of the UCL Institute of Education and co-author of Engines of Privilege, a new book about “the private-school problem”, has found that private schools are not as charitable as they make out. “Only 4% of private school turnover is devoted to bursaries, and only 1% of private school pupils get to go for free. Some rich schools do better than this, but overall there is no evidence of bursaries and scholarships becoming more generous, or more progressively channelled towards low-income families in recent years.”