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It's time to change private school prejudice

Posted on: 10 Feb 2015
Posted by: Charlotte Vere

Independent schools are portrayed as all top hats, tail coats and toffs. It's time to set the record straight and leave this 1930s image behind, writes Charlotte Vere.

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For too long, independent schools have been defined by outdated stereotypes and ill-informed preconceptions.

Independent schools are portrayed as all top hats, tail coats and toffs; one trick, very posh, ponies. It feels quite eerie, as if we are stuck in the 1930s, and that the debate, framed within the context of class-war and social mobility, has not moved on at all.

For much of the time, we take it on the chin; we no longer complain when independent schools are written about under a picture of boaters – in hand, on desk or being thrown in the air.

We long ago stopped trying to set the record straight, and that was wrong. Because we are not what you think we are. The reality is very, very different.

Let’s look at some of the myths peddled about independent schools.

They are all like traditional boys’ boarding schools. Of course this is a myth.

55 per cent of ISC schools have fewer than 350 pupils, and half educate the under 13s. Just one in eight of our pupils is a boarder. Day schools are the norm and always will be. Furthermore, nearly three in ten pupils in ISC schools are from minority ethnic backgrounds.

But what about the Russian oligarchs whose children are supposed to dominate our schools? This is a recent meme which gained some traction. Just 5 per cent of pupils are international students with parents living overseas – even if all of them are Russian, which they aren’t, it hardly constitutes a revolution.

And we must address the elephant in the room: fees.

Some traditional boarding schools are costly, upward of £30,000 a year, for some of the best teaching, pastoral care and extra-curricular activities that you will find on the planet. But it is a myth to think that all burn such a large hole in the wallet.

Firstly, not all boarding schools charge anything like this amount but offer an outstanding education, and secondly, the vast majority of independent schools are day schools, serving aspirational families in which both parents work.

They make sacrifices to be able to choose an independent education for their children. They aren’t paying £30,000, they may not be paying even £10,000 per year.

But surely it is true that independent schools hinder social mobility.

Do we? Is poor social mobility our fault? By abolishing independent schools, will social mobility be miraculously improved in our country? Of course not. Independent schools alone cannot solve social immobility because we educate only 7 per cent of pupils and we are dwarfed by the sheer size of the state sector.

However, we want to do what we can. We make huge efforts to help children reach their full potential. 41,099 pupils, or 8 per cent of the total, receive means-tested fee assistance at an average of £7,894 per pupil and a total cost of nearly £330 million per year. Some 5,391 pupils pay no fees at all.

We admit we can’t help all children, but we will make a huge difference to these children. Improving social mobility is a challenge that we must all seek to address and if we all play our part, however large or small, we can break down the barriers which currently limit potential.

Ah, but independent schools only work with state schools because they have to, right?

Wrong. This is another myth. Independent schools don’t have to work with state schools and local groups at all, but 90 per cent of them do so. They do so because they want to, because is it in their very culture and ethos to contribute to and work with local schools, local community groups and local charities.

Any attempt to force independent schools to comply with national diktats on what they could and should be doing will fail. We have been collaborating for years, we know what works, and the best partnerships develop between heads or teachers really wanting to work together, borne out of genuine local relationships, not as dictated from the top.

And that brings me to another myth. The idea that independent schools are traditional institutions full of posh kids.

Many schools do hold their traditions dear, perhaps it’s part of being British, and to an outsider they can look quite odd, bizarre even. But let us not forget that alongside these traditions sits a culture of innovation, experimentation and original thought – Tim Berners-Lee, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking all hail from our schools. And today our schools are ahead of the curve in introducing digital learning and coding.

But with a healthy student population despite one of the toughest recessions of modern times, why is it important to independent schools that these myths are addressed?

Well, placid acceptance of the outdated views of independent schools, means that the Government and quangocrats now feel that it is perfectly OK to differentiate by ‘school type’, but only if those school types are independent and state.

Put aside the fact that it is a massive injustice to assume that all independent schoolchildren are privileged, when many clearly, are not, the problem is that it buttresses the remaining barriers between the two sectors and makes it harder for independent schools to do what they want to do: play a significant role in the education of children in this country.

So we feel that it is time to draw a line in the sand and reset the relationship that we have with the world outside our school gates. We want to be seen for what we really are, not what people ‘think’ that we are, we want to be known for what we can and do offer, for the benefit of all children.

Whatever your preconceptions, will you give us a second chance?

Charlotte Vere, acting general secretary, Independent Schools Council

First published in The Telegraph - January 2015.

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About Charlotte Vere

Executive Director at GSA