Will independent schools ever be sensibly discussed in the media, in politics or over the supper tables of the nation? It is a long-standing national habit to view all independent schools as aloof, expensive, exclusive and barred to almost everyone in the land. The impression is now gaining ground that the cost has become so great (the figure £40,000 a year crops up regularly) that soon only Russian oligarchs and other members of the world’s super-rich elite will be able to afford them.
This takes to extreme lengths a misapprehension that all independent schools, of which there are 2,500, have been created in the image of a handful of famous public schools. Discussion revolves around the famous few as if they were typical representatives of the sector as a whole. The traditional refrain never alters. A fixation with a small number of ‘faux-Gothic spires’, as a new book rudely describes some of their cardinal features, means that the entire independent sector stands accused of playing a central role in creating and sustaining deep social division in our country.
The old stereotypes retain their hold. The famous picture taken before the Eton-Harrow cricket match in 1937 of two Harrovians in top hats being stared at derisively by three urchins is still used to illustrate articles in the press. When Michael Gove became the first former Conservative education secretary to call for VAT on all school fees in 2017 — incompatible with the Tory principle of enlarging choice — he resorted to the well-worn terms of abuse, justifying this move to ‘soak the rich’ on the grounds that ‘the wealthiest in country’ should be taxed on ‘a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society’.
Gove senses crude party political dividends in rounding opportunistically on independent schools. In this he is far from alone, though more brazen than most. His ludicrous identification of the entire independent sector with the rich is possible only because an imaginary uniformity is attributed to it, sustained by out-of-date images of the public school. Public school is itself an antiquated term, long since abandoned by all save their critics and newspaper headline writers. Convicted felons who were privately educated can expect to have their school and its current fees prominently reported, the implication being that these nurseries of the rich inculcate criminal intent.
In all this, the tremendous variety and diversity which are the chief features of today’s independent sector have been lost in the never-ending debate about its role.
Its schools range in size from 50 to 1,700 pupils. More than half are not academically selective, a fact that would by itself do much to bring some realism to the incessant supper-time conversations about education in which parents with children at private schools can be made to feel like agents of social division. An independent school head in Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency describes academic selection as ‘harmful to social mobility and the long-term development of all children’. Another head in Essex told me that, ‘We educate many pupils who did not get places in our four huge local grammars, but would not thrive in a large comprehensive.’
Few independent schools possess lavishly equipped theatres or vast playing fields. Fees vary widely. The big amounts, represented as typical relate to large boarding schools but boarders account for only one in eight pupils. There is an average gap of some £2,000 per term between schools in the north and south of the country. In some small non-selective day schools, fees are not greatly in excess of the average cost of a place in the maintained sector.
So many heads yearn for the introduction of an open-access scheme at all ages and all levels of ability. As general secretary of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). I put forward a scheme in 2001 which proposed that families should be able to transfer the cost of their state school places, with those on low incomes paying nothing. As it is, more than a third of families pay reduced fees. More than 40,000 low-income families have a free or substantially reduced place. The state could easily draw many independent schools into a closer relationship with it. But no one now recalls Churchill’s vision of independent school places ‘filled by bursaries not by examination alone, but on the recommendation of the counties and the great cities’ as an inspiration for action today.
Writers and commentators neglect the smaller independent schools on which they ought to focus in order to promote understanding of the independent sector. Many of these schools are members of the 512-strong Independent Schools Association, one of the constituent bodies of the ISC, of which I am president. The sustained progress being made by the association owes much to its chief executive, Neil Roskilly, who has long experience of both sectors. In his words: ‘Among the Independent Schools Association members are some of the most advanced special educational needs and performing arts schools in the world. The average size is just 217 children, and families at its schools are likely to be the traditional middle classes, which are often quoted as being abandoned by the sector as a result of rising fees. Yet our Association members, exercising firm control on fees, thrive. Small classes, dedicated teaching and an all-round holistic approach to education within a caring environment all produce astonishing success stories.’
None of this reaches the national press, which also ignores one of today’s biggest stories: state and independent schools working together for the benefit of all their pupils. Schools in both sectors put details of what they are doing — in sport, music, drama and on the academic front — on the ‘Schools Together’ website. Altogether, some 11,000 state schools are involved. Has a national newspaper yet printed a picture of the joint activities taking place day by day? Roskilly is right when he says that ‘the media’s continuing fixation on a handful of high-fee, high-profile schools continues to distort public and political perceptions, and does deep injustice to the independent sector as a whole’.