Dr Martin Stephen, Perse Headmaster from 1987-1994, has claimed in the Times Educational Supplement that some private schools “are frozen in the past” with “governance structures ill-suited to contemporary society”. He argues that year on year fee increases have led to the “financial and social marginalisation” of the independent sector and that this could lead to the ‘extinction’ of private schools.
Strong stuff from a man who has led three of Britain’s top independent schools – The Perse, Manchester Grammar School and St Paul’s. However, it is not a picture of the independent sector that I recognise. Independent schools are great survivors. The Perse, founded in 1615, has seen off the Bubonic Plague; the financial crisis of The South Sea Bubble; various Victorian scandals; and a direct hit from the Luftwaffe. Longevity of existence is no defence against extinction, but it does suggest a capacity to adapt to the times.
Independent schools survive and thrive because of their independence from government control. This means that they can focus on the needs of their pupils and fee paying parents without being subject to political interference. Escaping the ever changing bureaucracy that weighs down the state system, independent schools have the liberty to set their own courses and innovate in the best interests of pupils.
Independence brings choices. Independent schools can design their own curriculums, establish codes of pupil behaviour, devise programmes of extracurricular activity, determine the pay and conditions of staff, set their own term dates, control their own budgets. They do so knowing that they have forward visibility, and are free from the policy U-turns that can come with changing governments in the state sector.
Some independent school Heads wish to turn the clock back to the Direct Grant days, and receive a government subsidy for offering places to children from less advantaged backgrounds. I am passionate about the importance of means tested bursaries that promote pupil diversity and encourage social mobility. However, I would not want to take public money to do so because it would come with too many strings attached. Bursary fundraising from philanthropic donors may be difficult in the current economic climate but it helps to preserve independence. (It is also a political reality that in difficult economic times governments will never be able to justify spending limited public funds on independent schools). The bursary programme in schools like The Perse, guards against social marginalisation and it is pleasing to see that across the independent sector spending on means tested bursaries rose by 9.4% or £12 million in 2011.
The vast majority of independent schools are well governed. Most independent schools have a plethora of informed and talented governors who take their trusteeship very seriously. With 20 governors drawn from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds, The Perse has a strong body of “non-executive directors” appropriately scrutinising the work of school management and bringing their valuable experience to bear.
Independent schools are acutely aware of the economic realities of “double dip” recession Britain. In 2011, the average rate of independent school fee increase was 4.5% p.a., below the education component of the CPI rate of inflation which was 5.1% for the 12 months to January 2012. At The Perse, fee increases were lower with a maximum increase of just 2.9%. Independent schools are keen to control costs, but also to invest in their teachers, curriculum and plant to ensure that they maintain a world class education worth paying for. The record number of students in private schools (508,472), including large numbers from overseas, suggests they are doing so.