‘The State of Independence’
Key Challenges Facing Private Schools Today
There is much to admire in this volume of essays edited by David James and Jane Lunnon, but there is also a great deal to lament. There are some brilliant contributions from eloquent and erudite individuals who write with an authority born from lived experiences but there are also one or two rather self-indulgent and facile pieces which should probably not have progressed beyond the hazy realm of a late night pub conversation. The essays on pastoral challenges are engaging and well written whereas those which explore the current political context are flimsy and based on a frustratingly partial view of the sector. In a slightly bonkers piece, which attempts to argue that independent schools have surrendered their traditional values before the altar of wokeism, Katherine Birbalsingh gamely concludes, ‘of course, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I have never worked in a private school in my life. So I might just be talking nonsense’. Sam Freedman makes some interesting and perfectly sensible points about inflationary fee increases and he writes well. He explains how fee inflation has impacted upon the parental choices of his own social clique. However, his ‘killer charge’, that the sector has been consigned to ‘irrelevance’, is beautifully undermined by the amount of time and energy that he has dedicated to attacking the sector. Interestingly, the ISC Census (20222) reports that there are now a record 544,136 pupils at 1,388 independent schools so perhaps not entirely irrelevant.
No less than fifty six individuals were invited to contribute to this book. Admirably, space was made for a small number of strong international contributions. However, from what I can discern, we hear no voices north of Birmingham other than a solitary lecturer at Heriot-Watt University. Indeed, it is difficult to escape the fact that great swathes of the country are ignored and, as a consequence, there is little consideration of the extraordinary diversity that exists within our sector beyond the home counties. Furthermore, it is curious that in an age when student voice has become so important, not one of the fifty six contributors is under the age of eighteen. Consequently, the most vital voices within our sector are totally ignored. Unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, this uneven collection of essays is reflective of much that is wrong with the current quality of educational debate within the UK. Perhaps it is due to the uncertainty and volatility caused by Brexit, Covid, threats of abolition and the cost of living crisis. Of course, the current political uncertainty adds another problem with which the sector must contend. By this I do not just mean Labour’s determination to punish hardworking private school parents by placing VAT on school fees, for the Conservatives have little to offer by way of stability: my youngest daughter is just five years old but she is now on her eighth secretary of state for education.
It is telling that, all too often, those who argue for or against private education operate within the same cosy little bubble; Oxbridge, Westminster, Islington and the Shires. Ironically, their biographies are often remarkably similar and, with dreary predictability, their reference points are Winchester or Eton; never Bolton or Bradford. Lazy stereotypes go unchecked and repetitive ill-informed narratives are peddled by individuals who have frustratingly little experience of life north of the Watford Gap. All too often, leaders within the sector sit quietly on the sidelines as ‘experts’ working in think tanks or ‘policy units’ pontificate endlessly and pointlessly across the pages of The Guardian or some other such publication. A relatively small number of super elite schools provide plenty of entertaining fodder for those intent on representing the sector as a clique of Hooray Henrys hell bent upon becoming high court judges or, worse still, MPs.
The unconscious geographical bias contained within this volume should not come as a surprise. We live in a country where one’s life-expectancy is dependent upon your postcode. We live in a country where your chances of going to Oxford and Cambridge are significantly diminished if you live in the North West or the North East. We live in a country where northern cities have to go begging bowl in hand to bid for ‘levelling up funds’ whilst billions are lavished on transport infrastructure in the south. Given the national context, it is no small wonder that the North gets ignored.
In terms of social mobility, some of the most exciting work in the independent sector is being carried out in the North. Bolton School, Manchester Grammar School, Rossall and many other of our independent schools have generous bursarial schemes which far outstrip the generosity of their southern counterparts. Independent schools in the North challenge almost every lazy stereotype made about the sector. Our parents are not oligarchs and nor do they send their children to our schools in order to buy privilege or political power. They have little interest in the ruminations of a metropolitan elite who spend millions on properties in the catchment areas of outstanding state schools. Indeed, it is not surprising that those most vociferously opposed to private education are not to be found crowded into red-wall constituencies but tend to live in those areas where there is, conveniently enough, ready access to excellent schooling. Our parents are grafters who make personal sacrifices in order to provide their children with the educational opportunities that they did not necessarily have the good fortune to benefit from themselves. They send their children to our schools because they want them to grow in confidence and make a meaningful contribution to society. I have yet to meet a parent who truly believes a Rossall education is a free pass to the higher echelons of society or the professions.
Of course, I recognise the irony of a southerner complaining about regional bias but it is difficult to remain silent when the social and economic character of northern schools is so poorly understood and so dismally unrepresented. In terms of economic and social diversity, northern schools almost always lead the way. The pluralistic and inclusive nature of schools in the North West is totally at odds with the one-dimensional trope peddled with such confidence in the media. With so many voices absent from the table, it is no small wonder that the quality of debate is disappointing.
Helen Pike, Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford muses that, ‘I have thought of my profession as ‘day care for the severely abled’ and ‘altitude training for intellectual athletes’. If this sounds slightly lofty, she does go on to make the point that parental aspiration rather than parental income should be the decisive factor in terms of determining accessibility. Fine words indeed, but we do tend to hear this message fairly frequently from schools who provide (as a percentage of gross fee income) considerably less assistance than their less affluent counterparts. However, I think her point about aspiration is very important.
It is our responsibility to ensure that the truly distinctive and inclusive nature of independent education in the regions is not obscured by deference, humility and a surrender to provincialism. The North West possesses some of the most dynamic schools in the country and if we want to be part of the debate then we need to do a much better job of educating those who have set themselves up as experts on the sector.
HMC, BSA and ISC are working incredibly hard to challenge much of the misinformation utilised by those intent upon harming the sector. However, we desperately need a compelling vision for the future; one based on partnerships, bursaries, collaboration and a true commitment to diversity and inclusion. Of course this book does have some interesting ideas and David James and Jane Lunnon are voices worthy of very real respect. The volume does highlight the many challenges that the sector faces but it has frustratingly little to offer by way of solutions. I fear that, on this occasion, the silence of absent voices provides a much more compelling insight than the words of those who are present.
Headmaster of Rossall School