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Myth-busting: “Independent schools are too elitist to share their advantages”

Posted on: 09 May 2019
Posted by: Myth busters

Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, uses the latest Census data to set the record straight about some of the myths surrounding independent schools…

Every commentary about independent schools comes with the obligatory and no-doubt familiar photo of one of the more famous private schools or at least a boater-wearing child or an imposing manor house with acres of beautifully kept lawns and playing fields (empty, of course, because such schools are expected to be far too elitist to share their advantages). There is an assumption among the majority who have no direct experience of our schools that most pupils are entitled white boys boarding in huge, old-fashioned dormitories. The (strong) brand of UK private schools is interpreted as elitist, high class, and entrenching privilege. Etonians become PM and all independent school fee-paying parents are rich financiers or Russian oligarchs…


Look again through the lens of the ISC’s surveys and the 2019 Census, which has mapped trends across the sector since 1974, and you find a sector which cannot in fairness be portrayed in such a way. The independent sector is hugely successful and persists even in an unfriendly socio-political climate. The schools are effective, demonstrate value-added and are good enough to warrant parents’ investment.


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. Many of the parents who choose an independent education make sacrifices in order to pay fees. They do so because they place great value on the education provided. This year’s Census figures show there are more children in ISC schools than ever before. That’s more parents choosing to invest in their child’s education by paying school fees.


Academic results are very good despite the fact that fewer than half of ISC schools are academically selective. Not all schools are academic hothouses. However, our pupils outperform national and global averages academically. Proportionately, nearly four times as many ISC pupils gained 40 points in the International Baccalaureate compared with the worldwide average. The majority of those continuing to higher education go on to a Russell Group university.


Single-sex schools are slightly up in number this year although they remain a minority in the overall picture. There are around 73,000 boarders of the total 536,000 pupils in our schools and the proportion of weekly and flexi-boarders has risen to almost 18% of the total. Many working parents value the flexibility of weekly and flexi boarding.


Our 2019 Census shows the ethnic make-up at ISC schools broadly mirrors that of all state schools. And, there are now just over 84,000 pupils identified as having special educational needs or disabilities (SEND), 15.7% of our pupils, which highlights the importance of having schools that can offer the kind of specialist support that might not otherwise be available or accessible.


To dispel the profit-making myth, our schools are in the main not-for-profit organisations. The majority of ISC schools are charities, answerable to the Charity Commission for their public benefit. The schools themselves are rarely wealthy and few are supported by foundations. The typical ISC school in fact has fewer than 200 pupils and makes only a small surplus every year. They aren’t all based in stately homes, in fact some of our schools share the facilities of better-equipped local academy schools.


Aspirational, ambitious and high-achieving academically, yes, but also strong pastorally with a pupil:teacher ratio of 8.5:1 and keen to support the state sector; most of our schools are involved in cross-sector collaborations (there are over 4,000 partnership projects to see on www.schoolstogether.org) including academy sponsorship and teacher training initiatives. Schools take their civic duty seriously and ensure pupils are socially responsible citizens. Partnership working in all of its many forms - sharing facilities, university entrance preparation, careers advice and pupil mentoring to name just a handful – demonstrates the will of the independent sector to ensure it remains relevant and helpful to those unable to attend independent schools. Some 11,466 partnerships were recorded in the 2019 Census – up from the 10,553 recorded last year.


Character education is espoused by most of our schools and the broad curriculum – with a focus on the value of public speaking, drama, music and creative arts, sports and plenty of extra-curricular clubs – provides a strong and varied diet for young minds.


UK education is held in high esteem around the world. It is estimated independent schools’ revenue is worth £930 million according to statistics from the Department for Education. More than 55,000 non-British pupils choose to learn in ISC schools, 29,000 of whose parents live overseas. These pupils make a positive contribution both educationally and economically. And to dispel another myth, that of overseas children flooding into UK schools, the proportion of overseas pupils with parents living overseas in our schools has remained constant at 5.4% since 1974. Non-British pupils contribute an estimated £1.8 billion annually to the country’s GDP.


Independent schooling is not necessarily as it might first appear and certainly has much to offer society more widely. Without independent schools, our country would be worse off; there would be practically no alternative to state education and capacity and specialism across the education system would be reduced.


Independent schools save the taxpayer £3.52 billion in tax each year by educating 536,109 youngsters at no extra cost to the state. They pay over £4 billion in taxes each year and support over 300,000 jobs. Independent schools are of enormous value to the country culturally and economically. They punch above their weight globally and offer specialisms and capacity that can be hard to find in the state sector. We believe they should be viewed as a national resource and an asset.

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About Myth busters

In a series of "myth-busting" blogs for the ISC, pupils and school leaders help to dispel some common misconceptions surrounding the independent schools sector.