Independent schools: don't you know who we are?

Posted on: 10 Feb 2015
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

It is time to reset the relationship with independent schools in the UK, says Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools Council...

Our Election 2015 Manifesto has just been published. It represents the collective views of our eight membership associations, 1300 independent schools. It is not so much a shopping list as a statement of our main priorities as far as POLITICIANS are concerned. We do not expect the manifesto to influence policy; we want to use it to tackle some common misconceptions about our schools. We make seven points:

We want to be independent, free to offer a curriculum and exams that are best suited to our children - not dictated to us by the DfE. Free, for example, to offer the iGCSE even though it is now being ignored by government performance tables. Free to push back against state interference because we don't think the state is great at running schools and we think policies aimed at all schools are often unhelpful.

We want all our schools to be involved in partnerships with local state schools. 90% already are, many have been running since 1997, many are deeply rooted.

We observe that the most successful partnerships arise from local networks and are specific to local needs, not driven by the DfE, not following one particular, centrally determined model. But yes, it would be great if all our schools were in partnerships, the level of involvement depending on location and resources.

We welcome many of the reforms to the exams system. We are especially pleased by steps to control grade inflation and to make exams more rigorous. We would like the exam boards and Ofqual to take further steps to improve the reliability of marking. Above all, we would like a period of stability, time to get to grips with the reformed exams and time to assess whether the reforms have the desired effect (raising standards). In the future we would like teachers to be more closely involved in exam reform.

We dislike the way the government and the Office for Fair Access sometimes uses the term 'independent schools' as a proxy for privilege. We know this is naïve because there are plenty of pupils from wealthy homes in state schools and a third of our pupils are on reduced fees. This is why a third of Oxford students in receipt of a bursary because they come from low-income homes were at independent schools. We want to encourage the DfE and OFFA to think in terms of individual students not school type. Many of our schools are small and impecunious. Most are not academically selective. Many specialise in pupils with special needs.

Social immobility is not 'caused' by the success of independent schools. It is caused by the failure to lift the educational levels of the weakest 40% of pupils to that achieved in east Asia, caused by offering qualifications which have little value, caused by the DfE performance measure 5 GCSEs A* to C which capped achievement at C, caused by poor university and careers advice.

Independent schools cannot alone solve the problem of social immobility because we only educate 7% of pupils, but in recent years we have all made huge efforts to raise bursary money so that pupils from lower income homes can access our schools. A third of our pupils are now on reduced fees.

Our main resource is our good teachers. Most are qualified. Those that are not have a good degree from a good university and have been trained in-house. Finding good teachers and training them well remains a priority.

Our schools educate about 30,000 pupils from overseas, as they have done for many years. Recently some good applicants have been put-off by the visa system and we will continue to fight for their right to come to UK schools.

Our schools save the taxpayer £3 billion each year. We contribute £9.5 billion pa to the economy. Our students achieve a high proportion of the best exam results in important A-level subjects such as modern languages and the sciences. If we can preserve our independence, maintain high standards, offer more and more places to pupils from lower income homes, work in partnership with other local schools - if we can do these things we will continue to play our part in Britain's educational system.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.