Slowly, throughout the UK, at the rate of roughly one a month, schools are quietly being closed down. At the end of term, these schools will close their doors for the last time and their pupils will bid their final goodbyes to staff and friends, knowing they will shortly have to go through the painful task of settling into a new school. Teachers and staff who have such fondness for their pupils will say their final farewells, each anxiously hoping they will be able to find a new job before the start of the next term. The buildings will then lie empty for years, slowly deteriorating until someone finally gets permission to do something constructive with the buildings and land again.
Slowly throughout the UK we are quietly closing some of our oldest, most loved schools, and leaving some of our most lovely architecture to rot into the ground, and no one is doing a thing to stop it.
There is what sounds like a national scandal occurring, but most people, apart from those directly involved, know nothing about it. Children, who we are told, need stability and continuity throughout their childhood are having their lives turned upside down. In some instances moving schools two or three times more than necessary because of school closures, sometimes with hardly any warning.
So why is this scandalous situation being allowed to continue?
Why are schools closing and why is no-one doing anything about it?
Because they’re private schools, and there’s nothing anyone can do.
Whether you are for or against private education, or actually just don’t care either way, the fact that schools can be closed, at the drop of a hat leaving children with no school to go to and parents scrabbling desperately for any school place they can find is outrageous. In some instances, schools have closed just as pupils have been about to sit A-Levels and GCSE’s, the damage done there is immeasurable. Some of these children will be boarders, some of them from overseas. In these circumstances, they are virtually being made homeless overnight, and it’s all perfectly legal.
How can we have a situation whereby if a parent decides not to educate their child they would be liable to prosecution, yet if a school decides to pull out of educating all of its pupils, it can do so with absolutely no warning?
As it stands, there is no protection in law for children at private schools. There is no legal obligation for the school to continue to provide the eduction they’ve promised should they decide not to. As far as the law is concerned, they are a business like any other and just like any other business if they decide to shut up shop they are entitled to do so. And for many school owners, the value of the land the school sits on compared to the falling profits they make from educating children means that selling up to property developers is a far more attractive option.
Aside from the emotional impact, there’s an economic one as well. The Independent Schools Council believes private schools contribute £9.5bn to GDP (to put this in perspective, the UK games industry is worth about £1.02bn), save the taxpayer £3bn by educating children outside of the state school system, and contribute £3.6bn in tax revenues to the exchequer each year, equivalent to £133 for every household in Britain or enough to create 460 free schools. With around 25,000 foreign pupils enrolled in British boarding schools, private education is a substantial export, which is increasing annually.
But while there’s no doubt private education is a significant contributor to the UK economy, and stability in education is incredibly important to the welfare of children, there’s hardly any regulation of this industry, bar the standard requirements for background checks for anyone working with children.
Private schools are private
While state schools have to undergo regular, impromptu, independent, inspections by OFSTED, private schools, are not only given advance warning, but inspections are also completely voluntary but by an industry regulator whose membership is also voluntary. State schools finances are tightly regulated and overseen, whereas private school finances are a private matter. They are accountable only to themselves, and the charities commission where they are registered as one. Closing a poorly performing or under subscribed state school takes years of meetings and investigations. Private schools can be closed on a whim.
Private education is a big industry. But more important than the financial contribution is the provision of education. Our state school system is one of the most tightly controlled industries in the country, so why is the private school industry treated so differently when the fallout from things going wrong is so devastating to some of the most vulnerable members of society, at one of the most important times of their lives.