Barnaby Lenon, Chair of the Independent Schools Council, explains the importance of the independent schools sector in maintaining education standards across the UK
If you are part of the education system, you are likely to agree that these are very interesting –albeit challenging –times for the independent schools sector. Independent schools have had their fair share of headlines, amidst a factious and uncertain political landscape. We have regularly engaged in public debate with vocal critics, whether countering activists and pressure groups who want to promote damaging policy proposals taking choice over education away from parents, or explaining to Labour Party members how the significant contribution independent schools make to communities would be diminished if a VAT-on-fees proposal were enacted. Yet through it all, independent schools still continue to deliver the best possible education to their students.
Much of the criticism levelled at independent schools stems from an unfortunate lack of understanding. For many, the independent sector is synonymous with the big, academically selective schools, but these are not typical. If our detractors visited an average school in membership of one of the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) constituent associations, they would see the true picture. The majority of ISC schools have fewer than 300 pupils, typically just under 190. Less than half are academically selective. Many schools support pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds with greatly reduced or free places. Some work hard to support children on the edge of care, transforming lives through fully-funded boarding school places. Approximately 500 of all independents are specialist schools for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
Schools appreciate the sacrifices families make to educate their children privately, and want to help. The support they can provide depends on their resources, but schools are committed to widening access to families from all backgrounds. Bursary provisions are increasing, both in the sums available and the number of children benefitting. Last year, ISC schools provided over £420m in means-tested fee assistance.
Independent schools are not immune to funding challenges, demonstrated by increases to employer contributions under the Teachers’Pension Scheme. In recent weeks, the Labour Party has reiterated its commitment to imposing VAT on independent school fees, as well as considering a review of charitable status. This would be hugely damaging to the country’s education system. Increasing school fees would make independent education unaffordable for many. More pupils would be displaced into the state sector, adding further strain to already stretched resources. Let’s not forget that fee-paying parents have already paid for state school places through taxation but choosenot to take these up. The new campaign, ‘Labour Against Private Schools’, is calling for the abolition of all independent schools, attacking parents’rights to choose the education best suited to their child’s needs –a right enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Fundamentally, you do not improve education by tearing down excellent schools. As well as causing widespread and irreversible disruption, we understand this abolition pledge would involve the state unilaterally seizing private property. The impact on society of such a dangerous precedent has wide-ranging implications.
It is fundamental that more focus is given to the ways independent schools can be a part of the solution, through partnerships with state schools, bursaries and scholarships. These schools want to continue their work providing life-changing opportunities for their pupils. All schools want the best for their students and, instead of deepening the divide between the sectors, we should continue working together to focus on improving educational outcomes for all children.
Barnaby Lenon is the former head of Harrow School, chair of the Independent Schools Council, has been governor of 22 schools and is a trustee of the King Edward’s Birmingham Foundation. Barnaby is the co-founder of the London Academy of Excellence, Dean of Education at Buckingham University and part of the Ofqual standards advisory group. He wrote Much Promise: successful schools in England and Other People’s Children: what happens to the academically least successful 50%?
This article was originally published as the School House, Scholarships and Bursaries 2019/20 leader column, titled ‘Myth Debunking’
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