It is not at all uncommon for The Guardian to commission opinion pieces that attack the independent sector. Of course, it is the case that many of the sector’s most eloquent and persuasive critics are those who attended fee-paying schools themselves. There is nothing wrong with this and it seems perfectly reasonable for one to rail against that of which one has very direct experience. After all, it is usually parents who have the decisive say in determining choice of school, so the fact that one went to a private school should not disqualify one from arguing against their existence. However, I do observe that very few celebrities seem inclined to argue for a radical redistribution of wealth or other egalitarian measures that would serve to level up society. Similarly, many tend to live in the most affluent of catchment areas. Of course, there are many different elites in society and having moved away from London and the South East, I see that more clearly than ever.
Often such opinion pieces are little more than a tedious rehash of populist tropes. Such pieces tend to rely upon crude stereotyping and serve only to reveal the resolutely London-centric optic and cultural/social prejudices of the writer. A sector which has over 1,300 schools spread across the UK is more often than not gleefully reduced to a bunch of toffs with triple-barrelled names who spend their days strutting around in tophats.
In all fairness, we have only ourselves to blame for this state of affairs. Much of the criticism aimed at private schools has a historical validity that is impossible to ignore. Furthermore, the sector has done too little to position itself as a liberal and progeessive force within modern society. There are many examples of successful school partnerships but it is clear that the sector needs a radical rethink if it is to survive in its current form. If we do not like this public perception then we need to think smarter and work harder to shift it.
I have always admired David Mitchell. He has always struck me as superbly intelligent, quick-witted, funny and kind. This weekend he wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian about the franchising of UK independent schools overseas. It was an unexpected choice of subject and there was no doubting the strength of his feelings upon the matter. The piece was entitled ‘Expansionist private schools need a lesson in morality’. Whether a lesson or an admonishing lecture, it was certainly a thought provoking read. David told us:
I hate the new trend of British private schools opening branches abroad because the reason, it seems to me, is naked and unreflecting expansionism…it comes from an ill-considered capitalistic urge for growth, nothing more thorough than bigger is better.
It got better, or worse, depending upon your perspective.
And the notion of spreading British private education to the world, of planting the seeds of our own corrosive class system, like socioeconomic knotweed, all over the planet – as a sort of heritage product, but stripped, wherever local governments require it, of anything worthwhile it might stand for – is loathsome. The fact that the aesthetic of Britain’s most ancient public schools is so attractive to brutal Middle Eastern regimes should tell us everything we need to know.
I get the point about unbridled capitalism and the danger of moral ambiguity. It has always struck me that some of these arrangements appear to be concerned with little more than money. There will be uncomfortable questions to answer about many such arrangements in times to come.
You might legitimately ask who on earth would want to establish a satellite school in an authoritarian state with a poor track record in terms of human rights?
The lazy answer would be, ‘no one’ but it might not be the cleverest or most morally virtuous of responses. Personally, I might be tempted to perceive such an opportunity as a welome chink in the intellectual and ideological armour of the authoritarian state and I believe that one can convincingly argue that the soft influence of a liberal arts education is invaluable in terms of achieving societal change. Surely, those living under despotic rulers need this more than those living in liberal democracies.
Providing an educational context or a safe space within which all children are empowered and freedom of speech is valued seems like a pretty decent enterprise. Autocratic regimes tend to be isolationist and resolutely inward looking. By contrast an international education is outward looking and serves to promote cultural and religious understanding.
I note that this week, the United Arab Emirates welcomed the Israeli Prime Minister to Abu Dhabi; a step that would have been unthinkable ten or twenty years ago. The UAE is a state containing many international schools; there are Canadian, American, Lebanese, British and UK high schools to name but a few. It is a conceit to imagine that UK independent schools are the only players in the international education market.
Many Emiratis have attended these schools and, consequently, have been exposed to a myriad of ideas; some of which they will have rejected and some of which will have resonated with their own developing ideas of justice and equality. Over recent years the UAE has become an increasingly open society and I would contend that international schools have played an important role in achieving this. Twenty years ago, Schools in the UAE were prevented from discussing or mentioning the Holocaust. A teacher whom I happen to know rather well was put under official investigation by the Ministry of Education for referencing Anne Frank in an English lesson. For that teacher, prison did not seem an implausible outcome.
Overwhelmingly, I believe in the power of education to achieve good in this world. I believe that the opportunity to promote the causes of equality and human rights within authoritarian states should not be dismissed out of hand. The suggestion that modern and progressive independent schools have nothing more to offer than an abject lesson in an outdated class system is absurd. At its best, the independent sector offers outstanding opportunities to develop qualities such as leadership, compassion, empathy and understanding. I am totally convinced that education is our greatest protection against tyranny. If we care about the world within which we live, then we will not readily sacrifice opportunities to achieve positive change – no matter how challenging the context. After all, if we were offered the opportunity to establish a school for girls in Kabul then that is something that we would at least have to explore. The presence of the Taliban might provide the moral imperative to act. I do not believe that we should turn our back on those who are forced to live under repressive regimes.
There are plenty of ethical problems associated with establishing franchise schools overseas. Cynically, it might be viewed as neo-colonialism or naked commercialism and Mitchell is right to challenge the notion that it is all about educational idealism. However, I do wonder how deeply he has thought about what really motivates those of us who work in the world of education.
Finally, the left argues that Schools should not enjoy charitable status. They argue that VAT should be placed upon school fees and business rates applied. Surely, it is therefore not entirely surprising that schools are beginning to think more commercially in order to ensure that they can continue operating into the future. It is a balance and I know that here at Rossall we do the very best that we can to support children from a diversity of backgrounds. Almost 18% of our gross income (twice the national average) goes on bursaries and scholarships. We open our facilities to the local community and we are fortunate to enjoy good relations with many local schools. We try to do good within the context that we live in and we focus upon localism as much as internationalism.
It is not the case that we would never work with international partners but, were we to do so, I would want to be very confident that we were acting with absolute integrity and an unshakeable commitment to honouring and promoting the ethos and values of our wonderful school. Anything less would feel like a sell-out and worthy of more opprobrium than even David Mitchell’s splendid rhetoric can muster.
Headmaster of Rossall School