Diversity in the independent education sector

Posted on: 30 Apr 2018
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

Independent schools are not known for their diversity. Yet our figures tell a different story.

According to the 2018 ISC Census, thirty three per cent of pupils at schools within ISC membership are from a minority ethnic background. This is in line with the split reported for the state sector.

As in the UK as a whole, ethnicity in ISC member schools varies by region. Independent schools tend to reflect the population they serve. London schools have the largest proportion of minority ethnic pupils, with more than half the independent school-educated children coming from ethnic minority backgrounds.

ISC schools vary significantly in size from having fewer than 50 pupils to over 1,700, although the majority of schools have fewer than 350 pupils. The mean school size is just under 400, but the mode is just under 200.

Schools within ISC membership include single-sex schools, preparatory (prep) schools, those with specialisms in music, drama or art, schools that cater for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), those that nurture sporting talent, highly academic schools, and boarding schools.

Contrary to the stereotypical press image of the sector, there is socio-economic diversity at independent schools. The typical independent school family is dual income with the whole of one parent's income going to pay school fees. There is a smaller proportion of pupils from lower income homes when measured against the country as a whole, but the proportion is growing.

There are several reasons for this growth but the main one is bursaries (means-tested fee reductions). Some schools fund bursaries using fee income but most try to avoid this. The amount provided in bursaries (almost £400m this year) has grown partly because schools have decided to spend less on scholarships (which can see funding go to able pupils even if their parents are wealthy) and partly because of successful fundraising. The total value of means-tested bursaries and scholarships provided by independent schools has increased by nearly £140m since 2011.

Schools also offer fee assistance to the ‘squeezed middle’ because having a broad social mix which reflects our society is incredibly important.

Before 1975, many of the best urban day schools were Direct Grant schools - any low income child who passed the entrance exam had its fees paid by the local authority. At schools like Manchester Grammar and King Edward's Birmingham, 80 per cent of the children were on free places through the Direct Grant. After 1975, the grant was stopped but the alumni of these schools, many of whom have done well in life thanks to the great education they received, are now keen to give something back in terms of bursary support. This is the reason why schools like Manchester Grammar and King Edward's Birmingham can afford so many fee reductions.

Fees at independent schools can be high but this is often offset by generous bursaries. Boarding schools tend to have the most expensive fees because of additional costs such as accommodation, but even here the number of pupils from very low income homes is rising. The Royal Springboard Bursary Foundation, for example, has enabled hundreds of Looked After Children to go to the best boarding schools in recent years.

Diversity in schools enables pupils to learn as much from each other as they do from teachers. No school wants to exist in a bubble. Boarding schools have embraced the fact that their overseas pupils have much to teach the British about other cultures and can often be role models in terms of work ethic.

There is of course much to be done in terms of continuing to increase diversity but the same can be said in many other areas of the country’s education system. According to the Sutton Trust, state grammar schools and the 500 most successful comprehensive schools all have low proportions of pupils from lower income homes, partly because house prices rise around better schools. We all have work to do.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.