A new school of thought from the old tie brigade

Britain’s public schools, under a cloud following a fee-fixing exposé, must up their ante and embrace the spirit of their pay-masters: competition. By George Pitcher.

The exposure of a price-fixing cartel among some of Britain’s top public schools is almost too delicious for words. But, be assured, I’ll try to find some.

Not only do we have the delightful prospect of a Labour government, torn between its Old-Labour, anti-privilege roots and its New-Labour desire to grease up to the middle classes, being forced towards an Education Select Committee inquiry, but we also have an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) investigation.

The OFT can barely handle effectively an investigation into price-fixing at Britain’s supermarkets, whose reporting structures are rather more public than those of our oxymoronic public schools. But, in this case, the OFT is assisted by the ancient colleges of Eton and Winchester, which have sought a “supergrass” deal, in exchange for immunity from potential fines for anti-competitive behaviour.

Much has changed since my day, but these schools used to have their own summary systems of sanctions for “sneaks”. So I do hope that, when they visit other schools for cricket matches and the like, we can look forward to the bursars and headmasters of Eton and Winchester being soundly duffed up behind the bike-sheds.

The outrage of parents who patronise private sector education is partly explained by the lack of a sense of fair play, which was supposedly endemic in this kind of school. We feel stitched up – I speak as one who spends many tens of thousands pounds a year from taxed income on private education.

Most of us are not driven to private education for ideological reasons, but precisely because we won’t apply political ideology to our children’s education. In many cases, private education is simply far better than the public sector alternative.

But, once in the private sector, we are treated almost contemptuously. The annual notice of an inflation-busting fee hike arrives from a titled and double-barrelled chair of governors, who is almost certainly educating his or her offspring with inherited money at a substantial discount for leisurely services rendered to the school.

Discount schemes are available for those who pay for a number of years’ fees in advance. I explored this option with an accountant at a top public school – who freely admitted he couldn’t afford to educate his children at his own place of work – and discovered the discount amounted to some three per cent.

And there was, in any event, a clawback facility, should the school find it was being too generous. In any other kind of business – banking, for instance – this sort of treatment of the customer would not be tolerated.

A healthily competitive market would take care of the customer in respect of individual schools’ pricing policies. And if they looked to be colluding on price, the regulator would step in – a situation which has now come to pass.

How is relatively easy to fathom. Over the past 50 years and since I attended one of these institutions, British public schools have, belatedly, been forced to address their markets.

They realised in the Seventies that they were no longer providing an educative preparation for running the British Empire and that the upper middle classes no longer required a simple routine of single-gender, classical education with a heavy dollop of contact sport.

Public schools raised their game, taking advantage of the under-funding and inept social-engineering of state education. They became, quite simply, the only choice for good education for hundreds of thousands of those who could afford it.

One day, future generations will look back and exclaim: “They did what? Out of taxed income?” But that day, when we have the kind of universal, good education that one associates with Germany or Italy, is far off.

Meanwhile, old habits have died hard at public schools, which have been accustomed to a compliant class of nobs, for whom exclusivity is all – rather like the patrons of Glyndebourne.

But markets of all kinds have changed. The post-Thatcherite salariat is accustomed to competition and value for money. The old money-making cartels of the well-to-do, such as the insider-dealing rings of the City and cosy Lloyds of London gangs of insurance “Names”, have long gone.

“Fat-cat” packages agreed by mutually-interested non-execs are no longer tolerated. The middle classes have grown used to transparency and accountability in their supply of wealth and their demand of services. Private education is no different.

There are defences to be made of Britain’s public schools, beyond the customary excellence of what they provide in exchange for large sums of money. They are of charitable status, so all surplus funds are ploughed back into the service – this is enlightened, rather than avaricious, wealth creation.

They have also suffered from the five per cent compulsory hike in employers’ pension contributions. But price-fixing is unedifying and cynical wherever it arises, so private schools look like they’ll have to raise their game again.

For myself, I see a growing commercialism embracing our public schools, which can exploit the private sector in a way that the state cannot. My eldest son’s school recently had a plan to replace its tuck shop with a Starbucks, but the venture foundered on adverse publicity.

It has to be the way forward. I look forward to Eton, brought to you in association with the Sultan of Brunei; Harrow Häagen-Dazs; and Winalot Winchester. That will make talk of “competitive spirit” in the prospectus really mean something.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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