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"We shouldn’t find fault with independent schools and their extraordinary qualities"

John Claughton, Chief Master of KES Birmingham, responds to the publication of Sutton Trust's annual Leading People report, and says that blaming independent schools for their quality isn't the answer to increased social mobility.

Posted on: 01 Mar 2016
Posted by: John Claughton

Last week the Sutton Trust produced its survey, Leading People 2016, which showed the dominance still exerted over the commanding heights of our society by pupils from independent schools.

So, for example, 74% of High Court judges, 51% of print journalists, 61% of doctors attended independent schools. These figures are always set against the statistic that only 7% of children are educated in the independent sector.

Somehow or other, this dominance is too often used as a stick with which to beat independent schools and it’s not the first time: in 2012 independent schools were all but blamed for winning too many Olympic medals.

However, this success is not really a fault, it’s a fact and a fact with clear causality. There are lots of factors other than connections, the old school tie and the injustice of the class system which contribute to that success. Independent schools may only have 7% of the nation’s pupils, but they do have 12% of the sixth form population and very many of those pupils are outstanding in terms of ability. In most cases, you do need money to get into a highly selective independent school, but money alone can’t buy you that place: you need talent, too, and lots of it. Also, these schools do provide lots of advantages – that’s why parents are willing to pay so much.

The funding per pupil is much greater than any state school has, so independent schools can provide more, in terms of teaching expertise, range of subjects, class sizes, specialist support and advice, facilities and opportunities. Sport and music and drama and CCF and societies and lectures and all of those chances to develop ideas and character and confidence and experience and leadership are there in abundance. And such schools do also provide, through their alumni and university and careers advice an advantage to their pupils as they go into the big wide world. All of this is what independent schools have to provide and it is what independent school teachers expect to provide as a fundamental part of their jobs.

And perhaps the greatest benefit that independent schools, and particularly selective independent schools, provide is the chance to study and live with like-minded souls, others who are clever and ambitious, in a culture where high achievement and high expectations are bred in the bone. Of course, other schools that charge nothing can do some of these things, but it isn’t easy to do all of them when independent schools have anywhere between £12,000 and £30,000 a year to spend on each pupil and his/her education – and his/her accommodation.

I don’t see how any of this is going to go away, unless a government decides to tell people how they can spend their own money. So, the only way that this undoubted inequality can be addressed is by striving over time to change, not the schools themselves, but the pupils who go to them. In stark terms, it would probably be better for this country if the best schools were filled with the brightest kids, not the richest kids. This won’t come easily or quickly but change could come.

Indeed, there is one easy and obvious way to make a start, and that is something that the Sutton Trust itself constantly pursues, Open Access, the provision by the state of funds to enable able pupils to attend independent schools. It’s not complicated: the state could contribute the amount of money they’d pay to a state school and the schools themselves could make up the difference. It’s not even original, since this is merely a variant on the Direct Grant system which is perceived to have been a great engine of social mobility in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s and 1970s in this country. And it could happen because the best independent schools could find, especially through alumni giving, the funds to make it happen.

Let’s be specific. King Edward’s School has plenty of alumni who would appear in the data that makes up the Sutton Trust’s survey: for example, Chris Evans, editor of the Daily Telegraph, Sir Paul Ruddock, Chairman of the V&A, Lord Willetts, Andy Street, Chief Executive of John Lewis, Peter Williams, founder of Jack Wills, Lord Hall, Chairman of the BBC, Bill Oddie, the authors Jonathan Coe and Lee Child. In Birmingham itself, the Lord Lieutenant of the West Midlands is an alumnus and so are the heads of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, the Repertory Theatre and, if I may say so, King Edward’s School. And so it goes, and so it goes.

However, none of these pupils of an ‘independent’ school are the children of privilege. Indeed, all of them attended King Edward’s School for free from ordinary backgrounds. Each one of them would say that the school changed their lives and raised their eyes to higher ambition. We shouldn’t find fault with independent schools and their extraordinary qualities and what they do and have done for thousands of pupils. We just need independent schools to keep on doing the same job whilst the classrooms and corridors are filled with different pupils.


About John Claughton

John Claughton is Chief Master of KES Birmingham, a boys' day school in the heart of the second city priding itself on accessibility to all boys of ability, whatever their situation.