It’s time to rethink our approach to school fees, says Gavin Horgan, Headmaster of Millfield School

In the decade to September 2018 the cost of private education in Britain rose on average by 49 per cent. This rise was 19 per cent above the rate of inflation over the same period. Put another way, 15 years ago, average independent school fees were affordable in households with one higher earner in the house. Now, to afford such fees requires two higher earners and even then it’s a stretch.

Independent schools are doing more than they have ever done to support transformative, means-tested bursaries and it is right that they do. Last year schools provided £422m in means tested bursaries, up by a staggering £162m since 2011. The press rarely quotes this figure preferring instead to focus on headline fees and maybe it is right that they do as there are two quite separate issues at play here. One is the fundamental affordability of full fees at independent schools and the other is the capacity of such schools to transform lives through the provision of big bursaries.

Millfield has provided transformational bursaries for pupils since its foundation in 1935. Boss Meyer, founder of the school, had a Robin Hood ethos whereby those who could afford to pay did, which in turn helped local children who couldn’t access outstanding education. This was ground-breaking – social mobility in modern education in its infancy – and the ‘Millfield Mix’, a principle of diversity and inclusion, was born. Fast forward to 2018, Millfield provided £5.7 million in scholarships and bursaries benefiting 834 pupils.

That is not enough because it does not address the affordability of our fees to hard-working parents who do not qualify for a bursary. That is why we announced last year that we would cut fees by 5-10% in the coming years, and why we hope others will do the same. We have made the commitment because we believe that it is right and we are lucky that we are in a position to be able to do so.

Fee reduction is not straightforward: the ever-rising costs faced by schools on every front are eyewatering. Add to that the way in which a 40% rise to the employer’s contribution to Teachers’ Pensions Scheme arrived and the spectre of loss of rates relief and the need for Heads and Governing Bodies to be a combination of entrepreneur, accountant and magician has never been greater. It is time for schools to be more entrepreneurial and bolder in business.    

There are many forms of independent education in the UK and that is as true on fees as it is on school roll, culture, ethos or specialism. There is a desire in the press to homogenise the representation of independent schools. Parents need to be wary of that and schools need to do all that they can and more than ever before to emphasise their distinctive differences. It is possible to find independent schools charging very modest fees and it is, of course, possible to find the opposite. My core assertion still remains though: our fees have risen by too much for too long and we need to work hard to reverse that.

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