This week the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Moral Maze’ debated the morality of private education. Nick Clegg has suggested that independent schools are “corrosive”, whilst the Head of Rodean is allegedly emigrating to Switzerland because of the hostility private schools heads face. Of course there is much journalistic hyperbole in the reporting of these stories – nothing sells better in Britain than a stereotyped tale of social inequality. The Clegg story has it all, ex-public school pupil criticises public schools for promoting a great rift in society and then announces he is considering sending his son to one.
So do I hang my head in shame as the head of an independent school? No, of course not.
Perse staff work hard to run a successful school that does the very best it can for its pupils. Helping children achieve, and realising talents for the benefit of future generations are hardly immoral activities. The Perse, like many schools of its type, educates large numbers of tomorrow’s doctors, scientists, engineers and teachers. The independent sector as a whole produces a disproportionally large number of undergraduates in subjects the government regards as strategically important to the UK’s economic future. More than a third of engineering students come from independent schools and there is a similar figure in modern languages.
Most parents pay to send their children to The Perse. Every parent who does so is saving the state around £5000 per child per year by not taking up their entitlement to a free state school place. In total parents choosing to educate their children privately save the government about £3billion per annum, a considerable sum in austerity Britain.
Independent schools are not the exclusive preserve of the rich and privileged. Many are educational charities that offer free and subsidised places so children of all backgrounds can benefit from the education on offer. The Perse provides means tested bursaries for 120 children.
Independent schools don’t just provide fee support. They work hard to deliver other benefits to the local community. At The Perse, staff and students visit state primary schools to help pupils with Maths and French. Primary pupils come to The Perse to take part in Science, Technology, Sport and Outdoor Pursuits programmes. Learning is life long, and The Perse also runs a Digistart programme to teach local elderly residents computer skills.
Those who criticise independent schools often do so on the grounds that they increase social inequalities, claiming rich parents buy their offspring an excellent education to give them a head-start in life. This propagates existing social divisions in future generations. But the purpose of education should be to maximise talents, not engineer social equality. The future of the UK will be bleak if we move education down to the lowest common denominator in the interests of parity. Much better to identify the best state and independent schools, and raise the standards of the rest to the highest common denominator. For the critics of independent schools this is the surest way to destroy the private sector – nobody will pay for a private education when there is an excellent and free state equivalent.
The existence of schools entirely independent of the state can be very helpful to the maintained sector. In part, academy success is built on independent school DNA, with the recognition that freeing academies from local government control allows such schools to be more responsive to the needs of pupils. Academies are now benefiting from the freedom to set their own programmes of study, choose exam qualifications and determine staff salaries.
The longevity of many independent schools also brings an important perspective to educational debates. Politicians operate on five year horizons, and their preoccupation is with short term gains that voters will appreciate in General Elections. Measurements of the quality of education are thus reduced to simple public exam statistics summarised in performance tables. Independent schools with centuries of history inevitably take a longer term view. The Perse has survived the English Civil War, Bubonic Plague, The South Sea Bubble, a direct hit from the Luftwaffe, and numerous changes of Education Secretary. We can look beyond the latest fad and government performance measures, and focus on what 400 years of educational experience has shown. This includes the paramount need to prepare students for the challenges of adult life, and not simply tick government boxes and maximise the five A*-C GCSE rate. Education is about far more than success in the next public exam.
Independent schools, sitting outside the constraints of government control and funding, have the freedom to speak out and challenge politicians when there are legitimate concerns about educational policy. When the weight of the independent sector is brought alongside other professional associations it can change ministerial minds. The demise of EBacc is a case in point.
Independent schools are a force for the good. Their existence gives parents choices – choices that are open to those who can pay (fee paying places) and those who can’t pay (means tested bursaries). Parents should have the freedom to decide which school is best for their child and the mix of academies, state schools, free schools, and independents provides that choice.