The value of an independent education

Posted on: 08 Jan 2018
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

What's the point of private ownership of property? What's the point of paying for a tutor? What's the point of private medical care? What is the point of private schools?

From the perspective of parents, private schools (which are generally called 'independent schools' by the schools themselves, and never the Victorian term 'public schools') provide good teaching and very good results. Most pupils at prep schools (junior schools) go on to very good senior schools, including grammar schools. Those at senior schools go on to good universities. They are taught in an environment marked by good behaviour and a cheerful willingness to learn. The teachers often have a strong academic background.

The excellence and strength of independent schools stems in part from their independence from central government and local authorities. All state schools are measured by Department for Education performance tables. Independent schools are not judged by these tables and can afford to ignore them.

Why would they do that? Here are a couple of examples....

In recent years state schools have been judged by the proportion of pupils entered for and passing a specific bundle of 'academic' GCSE subjects called the EBacc. This measure was introduced because the government was rightly worried about the fact that pupils from low income homes were too often encouraged to take less academic subjects at GCSE, which meant that the path to A-levels and university was blocked - blocked by decisions taken by schools when the pupils were only 13. So the EBacc was and is an important way of nudging schools to compel all pupils to take academic GCSEs. In 2016, the EBacc became more of a nudge when it was incorporated within a measure called Progress 8. Schools which do badly in Progress 8 can see their heads dismissed and governors sacked.

Now we come to the problem. It is impossible for government ministers to have curriculum polices which only apply to low income pupils or only apply to certain schools. The EBacc performance measure has to apply to ALL pupils in ALL state schools. This is where independent schools have a big advantage...they can devise a curriculum which suits individual pupils or their individual school without fear of the performance table measures and the Ofsted inspections which are based on them. Performance tables can destroy a state school. Independent schools are free to do what is best for their children.

Before 2011, state schools were prevented from offering the international GCSE (IGCSE) to their pupils despite the fact that many independent schools chose to take it. Independent schools liked the IGCSE because it was more demanding than the normal GCSE. The normal GCSE was dumbed down over many years under Tony Blair, while the international GCSE was based on the old, more rigorous O-level.

When Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education he said it was ludicrous that only pupils at independent schools could take this high quality exam. The rules were changed, so that for three or four years state schools could enjoy the benefits of the IGCSE. But after 2016 the policy was reversed again because the government was keen to force state schools to take the reformed GCSEs (reforms which were very much based on the IGCSE model). So now only independent schools can take the IGCSE - if they want to. They have a choice.

Independent schools are inspected against standards determined by the government, just like state schools. But these standards are mainly about keeping children safe. They require the effective teaching of a balanced curriculum but they do not go as far as the performance measures imposed on state schools. They allow independent schools more freedom. Most state schools, for example, only appoint teachers with a teacher training qualification. Independent schools often appoint people who have never taught before but have either a very strong academic background or have had an interesting career doing something else - in the army, for example. The schools then have to train them themselves and find that the end product is often better than many teachers coming out of a teacher training college.

To some extent the advantages of independent schools stem directly from the fact that they have two to three times as much money to spend per pupil than state schools. Class sizes are smaller. Facilities are better, and they have more textbooks. Some offer the International Baccalaureate, which state schools might like to do but generally cannot afford. Above all, there is almost always a range of extra-curricular activities on offer which far exceeds anything found in most state schools. These activities (sport, drama, music, art and many others) are important because they are the basis of lifelong interests, they quite often lead to unexpected careers and they develop skills which we now know are as important as exam results - things like team working, the ability to bounce back from defeat and public speaking.

In many independent schools you are buying something else - the personality of the school. Most state secondary schools are very new as they were relaunched as academies only after 2010. Most independent schools have been going for years and benefit greatly from the strange customs, the funny uniform, the long line of distinguished alumni and the ties with the past which give each of them a distinct personality.

Ok, so the pupils who go to independent schools are lucky, and it is easy to see that as unfair, in the same way that it is unfair that some people own a house and others don't. Does the country AS A WHOLE benefit at all from the existence of these schools?

I would argue that it does. Because they are independent of government decisions it is often the case that they act as a beacon of common sense. Think of the decisions taken by Michael Gove in 2010, all of which were based on the good things he saw happening in independent schools: GCSEs remodelled to be more like IGCSEs; A-levels remodelled to become like the Pre U, another qualification devised by independent schools as a reaction against dumbed-down A-levels; state schools allowed their own independent governing bodies, freeing them from local government control. Some were called ‘free schools’.

The best-known free school is Michaela School in Wembley. Outside is a huge placard which simply says 'PRIVATE SCHOOL ETHOS'. What does that mean? I would suggest that, to Michaela, it means a focus on good discipline, the acquisition of knowledge and excellent results. It means sending pupils to the best universities.

Independent schools offer specialist education for specific types of pupils of a sort which are in short supply in the state sector – nursery schools, schools for pupils with special needs, schools for pupils with high ability, single sex schools, boarding schools, music and dance schools, cathedral choir schools, and schools with a specific religious ethos.

Independent schools have saved many subjects that have to a large extent died in the state sector - Latin, Greek, music, modern languages, and history of art for example.

Independent schools are the backbone of several national sports, including rowing, rugby and cricket.

The parents who pay for independent schools save the state £4 billion a year from the education budget.

The country as a whole benefits from the existence of independent schools.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.