Let’s Get Real About Independent Education
By Janette Wallis
There’s been a hullabaloo in the past few days about Labour proposing to abolish fee-paying schools, or more accurately to integrate them into the state sector. Most of this is party conference tub-thumping with a sprinkling of press embellishment. The excitement will die down and manifestos will mellow - it’s already happening. In the mean time, I thought I’d correct some of the magical thinking that surrounds independent education.
First off, independent isn’t always better. Some fee-paying schools are pretty dreadful, especially if they don’t suit your child. I am reminded of a comment from one of the founders of The Good Schools Guide, back in 1986, when asked her opinion of a famous boarding establishment: “I wouldn’t send a dead rabbit to that school”.
Independent isn’t always an academic advantage. There are plenty of non-selective independent schools, and even more that are virtually non-selective. This doesn’t make them bad schools, but parents are choosing them for something other than exam results - whether it be outstanding sport, warm friendship, or help with special educational needs.
Independent doesn’t always provide an old-boy network. One of the most outdated ideas about fee-paying schools is that attending them turns one into Boris Johnson, hobnobbing at Boodle’s, arranging work experience for godchildren and first jobs for nephews managing the mines in Rhodesia. A few schools do provide something a bit like this but, in truth, most don’t much. And nowadays, most professionals are too nervous about the faintest whiff of nepotism for connections to matter the way they once might have.
Independent doesn’t always lead to the top universities. On the contrary, universities are using contextual data to tease out the best pupils from poorer schools, which inevitably means fewer places going to applicants from independent schools. The best universities really do want to widen access to higher education. They really do want the most able pupils for their courses and go to quite a lot of trouble to identify them.
Independent isn’t always a cop-out from the state sector. Few families now can afford to fork out for their children’s entire education. Perhaps they pay for early years before moving to a village primary, or attend state schools up until sixth form when their children decide they need to board. We have clients who mess with all preconceptions by having one child at a grammar school, one at an independent and one at a comp. My neighbour’s son boards the daily school bus to the local comprehensive while his sister boards (with a bursary) at Marlborough College - one of the snazziest schools in the land.
Independent isn’t always British. Children come to the UK from around the world to spend money at our schools (supporting thousands of jobs, generating £550 million in annual tax rev-enues and expanding our so-called ‘soft power’ while they’re at it). Boarding schools are full of them. They get an education (and command of English), their British classmates have their horizons stretched, and our economy gets a healthy shot in the arm: win-win-win.
Independent isn’t always posh. Some very normal families really do scrimp and sacrifice to pay for their children’s education - we see them every day. 34 per cent of children at Independent School Council schools are from a minority ethnic background. The independent sector hasn’t won any friends by hiking fees faster than inflation, but ISC schools doled out £422m in means-tested assistance last year. And when affluent people do pay full fees at an ‘elite public school’, often with the help of grandparents or trust funds or investments from god-knows-where, isn’t it better to have that fortune out circulating in the economy - paying teachers, bus drivers and catering staff wages - rather than being handed on, untouched and swollen, to the next generation?
And finally, independent isn’t the only way parents get a leg-up in the academic arms race. How is sending your child to a fee-paying school different from moving to a rich area to be in catchment for an outstanding comp? Or hiring private tutors? Or going to church simply to gain admittance to a CofE school? Except that it's out in the open while the others are under the radar.