Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Reassuringly expensive?

Public schools endlessly praise, commend and extol those middle-class parents who scrimp and save in order to educate their children away from the dreaded state sector. It isn't exactly Monty Pythons 'Four Yorkshiremen', but a survey by mtm consulting in 2007 found that four-fifths of public school parents spent up to 40% of their income on school fees.

A survey by Halifax Financial Services in 2006 reported that average school fees now amount to more than a third of average earnings. They claimed the average annual cost of sending a child to private school was £10,368 compared with £7,275 in 2001. As a result, “the average worker in a number of occupations, including pharmacists, engineers and journalists, can no longer afford to educate their offspring,” according to Martin Ellis, Halifax Financial Services' chief economist.

However, when it comes to the crème-de-la-crème, the elite public schools, we are talking about eye-watering fees that only the seriously rich can afford – day fees of £9,000 and boarding costs of £25,000. Eton don't list their pupils according to rank, nobility first, but there are the charges for 'extras' and a certain snobbery that can disadvantage the less wealthy i.e., holidays, clothing, private yachts, etc.

There are of course bursaries, discounts and scholarships to ameliorate or ease the burden of fees. In some of the older, established, traditional public schools endowments are used to reduce or subsidise the total school fee. Research for the 'New Statesmen' by Dan Rosenheck in 2003 revealed that-

'Eton, tuition fees constitute just two-thirds of total revenue: investment and property income add £9,744 per pupil per year. At Winchester, the gap between fees and spending is £3,337 per pupil. In other words, these schools subsidise the education of their pupils. They are charities, as their legal status suggests, but the charity goes to those who need it least. The beneficiaries are the very wealthy, who can afford to pay £21,000 per year but not the £30,000 an Eton education actually costs; and the fabulously wealthy, who could afford such education but receive it at cut-price rates.'

In 2009 the Charity Commission investigated five public schools and reported on a wide variation in bursaries and scholarships-

Highfield Priory didn't provide any bursaries or scholarships.

Manchester Grammar School assisted 14% of pupils with bursaries and 8% received 100% assistance.

Manor House assisted 21% of pupils with bursaries and hardship awards with a further 8% on scholarships (up to 40% of fees), only 1% of students received a 100% bursary.

Pangbourne assisted 24% of pupils and a further 20% were on scholarships (up to 50% of fees), less than 1% of students received a 100% bursary.

St Anselm's assisted less than 1% of pupils with bursaries and only 3% received scholarships.

Some of the less-well endowed schools complained that as they didn't have money invested by ancient foundations and that if they provided more bursaries or scholarships they would have to raise fees for other parents. As the 'Good Schools Guide' noted on their web site,

'It takes determination and hard work on your part, and exceptional abilities on the part of your child, to have a good chance of securing a high-value bursary. Most scholarships are, these days, of little value - a few per cent off the fees for the sake of an accolade.'

Most of the elite public schools accept pupils at the age of thirteen through the Common Entrance Exam and successful pupils will generally have spent years in a prep school sitting mock tests and revising old papers.

The fact is that the proverbial 'struggling middle-class parent' is very unlikely to gain entrance for their child to the true elite – Eton, Harrow, Marlborough, Repton, Rugby, Sherborne, Tonbridge, Uppingham, Wellington, Westminster and Winchester. Although there has been a move away from boarding this doesn't apply to the these schools, so fees will start at around £20,000. Even then there is still a certain one-upmanship, when George Osborne was a member of the Bullingdon Club his nickname was 'oik' because he'd attended St Paul's and not Eton or Harrow.

All of these elite schools are members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which includes around 250 of the most exclusive public schools. Membership is granted by invitation only and is highly prized. Exclusion from the HMC is virtually the kiss of death for any aspiring public school. The quality of schools outside the HMC is variable, there are plenty of maverick headteachers who establish their own schools with children whose parents want to escape the state sector at any cost.

Are high fees a deterrent for parents? During the 1870s the County Education schools movement attempted to organise fee-paying schools for the middle classes at cut rate prices, they weren't successful. Chris Woodhead is attempting a similar feat with his Cognita Schools, charging between £6,000 and £9,000. Most public school heads regard this move with suspicion or even hostility, in their view cheaper public schools will 'dilute' quality, lose them their cachet and exclusiveness.

There is an interesting history to public school fees. Traditionally the aristocracy used tutors to educate their children at home. By the end of the eighteenth century this changed and they began to send children to schools like Eton and Harrow. They weren't particularly concerned at the quality of education they just wanted to get rid of them for a few years. The professions and the military didn't use competitive exams so it was possible to buy commissions or use influence. The conditions in public schools were horrendous, Dickens ruthlessly exposed them in 'Nicholas Nickleby' with his portrayal of Dotheboys Hall.

As there was no alternative offered by the state, the rising industrial class began to pressure the government for change, this accelerated after the 1832 Reform Act when the new industrial towns won representation in the House of Commons. The Brougham Commission in 1818 started to investigate the public schools and pressure from papers like 'The Times' resulted in the 1864 Clarendon Commission on the nine 'great' public schools. When they went to Eton they found that over the last twenty years the Provost and Fellows had pocketed £127,000 in fines on renewal of leases. Christopher Hollis in his book on Eton described them as 'greedy, idle and nepotistical'.

The Public Schools Act 1868 swept away the Fellows and established independent governing bodies with clearer accountability, they also created the process of competitive exams for entry which ensured that the public schools were dominated by the upper classes.

Historically fees have increased at a faster rate than incomes, public schools tend to charge what they can get away with. In the past decade fees have risen by 50%. In 2006 the Office of Fair Trading fined 50 public schools for operating a virtual cartel on fees. Between March 2001 and June 2003 the bursar of Sevenoaks School circulated information on proposed fee increases. The OFT found that,

'Through their participation in the Sevenoaks Survey, the Participant schools exchanged on a regular and systematic basis highly confidential information regarding each other's pricing intentions for the coming academic year that was not made available to parents of pupils at Participant schools or published more generally. This arrangement constitutes an obvious restriction of competition whereby the Participant schools knowingly substituted practical co-operation for the risks of competition amounting to an agreement and/or concerted practice having as its object the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition. Further, it was implicit in the way that the Sevenoaks Survey operated, and the fact that it was intended that the information exchanged should be reasonably reliable, that there was at least a 'gentleman's agreement' amongst the Participant schools that the fee increase figures submitted to the Survey would accurately reflect actual future fee levels.'

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) condemned the OFT’s investigation as “a scandalous waste of public money” and argued that it amounted to an attack on the whole of the charitable sector! Jonathan Shephard, its general secretary, said: “The OFT needs a result for the sake of its credibility. The OFT has failed to understand that charities have no motive for raising more money than is needed for charitable activities.” Yes, for breath taking arrogance and obfuscation you really couldn't beat that statement.

Of course for some parents high fees are just so much loose change; bankers with their millionaire bonuses, Russian kleptocrats, Mexican drug barons and the Nigerian military are all happy to send their children to English public schools. The best education money can buy.

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