Politics in the UK has settled into a more mundane rhythm after the fever dream since the defenestration of Boris Johnson. It's almost reassuring.
As I write, arguments rage around the charitable status of public schools and their exemption from VAT. A brilliantly British argument.
A public school is, in fact, a private school. Unless you're in Scotland, where a public school is a state school and a private school is a private school. Why? You don't care, believe me. Make yourself a cup of tea and carry on reading. It's the British way.
Attending a public (you know, private) school is expensive, as they charge hefty fees. The schools however, are not businesses, rather they have charitable status. This brings them lots of tax breaks. They also get a VAT exemption. Value Added Tax is a sales tax and is levied on pretty much everything. It's 20%. However, if your paying for little Johnnie or Janey to attend public school, you will not be charged VAT on top.
I attended a state primary school in Bristol. Run, in part, by Roman Catholic nuns. There, I was encouraged to try for a scholarship at a not too distant public school. If I got it, then all fees would be waived. I didn't. The exams were too close to call, but a blighter called Tom won out at interview (in fairness, he was a charming young guy.). I was desolate. I'd set my heart on the school, particularly as at the alternative, a state school for which I was destined was known for its hazing of the new intake. They were going to stick my head in a toilet and flush!
Unbeknownst to me, my parents called a summit. My father was serving in the Royal Air Force, and as such, could request support for school fees. The kicker was that he could only apply for this support if I was to be a boarder. Oh - back to explanations, a boarder lives at the school during term time.
My Mum and Dad sat late into the night with pencil, paper and calculator. The support from the RAF was only partial. The school was prepared to offer something partial too, but the balance would need to come from my parents' earnings. Eventually, I was given the chance to go, as a boarder. I'm not sure I had any real understanding of what a boarder was, but my acceptance was instant. I became a public school boy.
By sixteen, I was pretty much ungovernable. The school could cope no more, and I was indefinitely rusticated (sent to the country), or expelled. Eventually, the school relented, and allowed me to return, but by then I'd already secured a place back in the state system, at a technical college, where I studied for two years, getting my A-levels.
I've seen a little of both sides.
Why was I so desperate to attend the public school? I was nine, and unlikely to have completed a detailed analysis. I remember the sports facilities, the science labs and the gorgeous old buildings. There was a statue of a general next to a memorial arch, through which I could walk, but not with my hands in my pockets. I would learn Latin! I had no idea what Latin was, but it sounded exotic. There wasn't a single mention of having my head in a flushing toilet. I suspect that I was just being nine. I knew my parents wanted me to go, I tried as hard as I could to ace the exams, was bitterly disappointed when I missed, and so when a lifeline was thrown, I grabbed it eagerly.
What was it like? Incredible. I was homesick for one night, the second, when I cried myself to sleep. I learned Latin, and cricket and Russian and rugby. I was an army cadet and learned to ski in Switzerland. I met this whole new gang of boys called Jews. (The rumour was that they had their willies chopped off as babies.) Sure, I rebelled. But that was me, not the school. They did their best, but I was a resourceful rebel. Public schools then (and I assume now) were able to offer better facilities, better teacher-student ratios and therefore more opportunities.
State schools then (and I assume now) were underfunded and stretched with teachers trying their level best despite a paucity of resource and huge class sizes. This is, of course, a generalisation, and is by no means intended to be derogatory. It's not a level playing field.
The debate rages about fairness. One side argues that public schools should get no tax breaks, which are effectively subsidies from the public purse. The other points out that parents who send their children to public schools still pay their share into the public purse. They pay their contribution to educating the country, even though their children do not burden that system.
Aren't public schools a symptom, rather than a cause? In the year 2022 shouldn't every school be incredible? Shouldn't we be throwing money at education? Rather than looking at how Eton might be taken down a peg, why aren't we looking at making every school as good as Eton?
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