Saturday, 14 July 2012
A great idea, out the window again - the private school subsidy remains.
In 2009, I was part of a team of kids from Hautlieu School who took part in the annual Youth Assembly, where 6th form students from each of the schools go and sit in the States Chamber for a day and debate propositions and interrogate ministers.
The propositions are not normally as dull as the usual ones in states proceedings, but on more general topics of principle that are easier for young people to get involved in. The things that usually come up are debating whether to legalise euthanasia, whether to extend the smoking ban or whether to tie university funding to the “usefulness” of the degree etc. So it’s normally issues of principle, rather than the ins and outs of funding arrangements in a context of deficit reduction. But all in all, it usually ends up a great day.
The proposition that my team put forward, that I proposed, was that the States of Jersey should cease to provide any public subsidy to the islands fee-paying schools. Essentially our position was that over a few years the subsidy should be decreased and the schools should seek private sponsorship instead. The idea was to alter the strange circumstance we have in Jersey where private schools have state funding, so to save money in a way that didn’t adversely impact on anyones education.
Needless to say, given that it was being suggested by a non-fee paying school to be approved by 4 fee-paying schools, we were resoundly defeated. But the whole process was very interesting. I had to do a lot of research, I had a meeting with someone at the Education department who was incredibly helpful, gave me a lot of information, suggested ideas and played devil’s advocate to help format the argument. Hautlieu were terrified when they found out their students planned to put forward this proposition and (literally) begged us to change it, and not being one to ever bow down to those in positions of authority unless they could convince me they were right, I explained they were not convincing and said we would do it anyway.
But the arguments we were given in the assembly were generally very poor. Most had taken it as nothing but an attack on their way of life, inspired by jealousy and pettiness, despite our strenuous attempts to make it clear that was not the case. My personal favourite comment was from someone whom I now consider a friend, who accused me of putting forward “Socialist drivel” (wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or flattered!) despite the fact we were arguing for cutting ties between private and state, rather than extending them.
So you can imagine how vindicated I felt when a matter of months after this, the then Education Minister Deputy Reed proposed halving the States subsidy! Since the Youth Assembly propositions were more based on principle, rather than practicality, I understood that the proposition to half the subsidy (rather than mine of abolishing it outright) was more appropriate and fully endorsed it.
Just with the Youth Assembly arguments, we had the parents coming out to condemn the move, decry it as “unfair” and they even had prominent supporters like the then Senator Shenton (obviously nothing to do with the fact he sent his kids to private school), who dismissed the Minster as if he obviously didn’t understand the whole argument for having the public subsidy.
But the issue has arisen again because of the new Education Minister Deputy Ryan’s announcement that there will be no alterations to the subsidy until at least 2016 (the JEP article can be found HERE). And, as was the case with the Youth Assembly, we can see by the comments that the parents are as ill informed as they were when the issue was first brought up and those that are in favour of the proposed cut are dismissed as not understanding the reasons for the subsidy in the first place. But they are wrong, and I’ll demonstrate it now.
Here’s the argument –
The government providing a subsidy to the fee-paying schools is value for money. Educating children in a States school costs the government more than it does than if they were educated privately. So by offering a subsidy to the fee-paying schools, they are able to lower their fees by an amount that widens the scope of families that are able to afford to send their children to the fee-paying schools, and thereby lowers the burden on the taxpayer. Simple.
None of this is wrong. But what none of these parents are capable of thinking is, is the current level of subsidy the optimum amount? They are too busy trying to stifle any debate on the level of the subsidy, even though it is entirely possible that the current level of the subsidy is actually either too high or too low. There should be regular reviews to determine whether the best amount is being paid out and whether it needs altering to make sure as much money is being saved as possible. The previous minister judged that this wasn’t the case, and whilst his department was being asked to make savings, this was a perfect area to review because it didn’t actually involve firing any teachers or lowering the standard of education that Jersey students got.
The second part of the argument put forward by the parents and headteachers was that the fees would have to rise and this rise would lead to an exodus of students out of the fee-paying schools and into the state sector, where the government would have to pay twice as much for each pupil. Every child in a fee-paying school is given 50% the amount they would be if they were in a States school. So the more students in the States schools, the more the government spends there so they wouldn’t actually save money if enough students swapped.
The problem with this is that it didn’t take into account a few factors that would actually offset the costs and make it still economically viable. Whilst the debate was going on, one of the headteachers came out and made a prediction (which you can bet was pessimistic) on how many students in fee-paying schools would have to leave because of the rise in fees. The amount of students he predicted was NOT enough to mean the States weren’t saving money (I’m looking for the citation of this, and will post it when I’ve found it).
Only taking into account the direct costs of education, 50% of the students would have to leave the fee-paying schools to mean the states weren’t making money (because each student would thus become twice as expensive for the government). Though this doesn’t take into account the costs of building new classrooms and hiring more teachers, so it would actually be less than that. But the number of students predicted to leave was far lower than this. In fact it was also a number that the States schools headteachers announced that they had capacity to accommodate. So no new extra funds would have to be allocated to the States schools.
But this also doesn’t take into account the fact that the fee-paying schools actually have waiting lists and so it’s likely that some children would actually swap from state to fee-paying schools because of increased availability. So this would further reduce the cost to the tax payer.
The numbers work out!
The fact is, the government giving away £9.8m a year to the fee-paying schools is NOT economical. It is not value for money and we could do better. Providing them with £5.5m a year instead means we keep all of the benefits of having the public subsidy and reduced strain on the states sector, without any of the negatives.
Now, of course it would upsetting for any student to have to leave a school they have become comfortable in and you can totally understand parents being annoyed at having to pay extra fees. But where they seem to have a misunderstanding is that this arrangement does not exist to provide an economic benefit to those families, it exists to provide an economic benefit to all of the islands taxpayers as a whole, and so this change was going to reflect that.
But despite all this, the new minister has thrown out the proposition.
Make no mistake ladies and gentleman, Deputy Ryan has not thrown out the proposition because it had no merit, but because he is trying to win votes from a certain section of society. He would rather shift the public spending cuts in education on to the already underfunded states schools so that poor people have to make it up. This is typical of the government we currently have.