Guide to independent schools

People sometimes ask questions such as, “What is the pay scale for an independent school?”, as though they were all the same. Nothing could be further from the truth – they are independent, individual, individualist even, and something that is true about one may not be true for another.  Here are some brief notes on the different types of independent school you could consider working in.

Day or boarding?

The obvious difference is that the pupils don’t go home after school, and someone has to supervise evenings and weekends on a rota system. Boarding schools generally pay an extra whack for this – quite substantial in the case of the big public schools – and often give free or highly subsidised accommodation, although there may be tax implications here. Boarding schools quite often have shorter terms, which in some ways counterbalances the extra hours from your weekly duty evening. The pastoral career route in a boarding school can be very interesting, with deputy housemaster/mistress as a first formal step after being a member of a boarding house staff. Many boarding schools are in the country, so can be a bit isolated, although the “family feel” and companionship can be a big plus. 

Some traditional day schools have Saturday morning lessons, but if they do, often have Wednesday afternoon as sport.

All boys, all girls, mixed or diamond?

The all-boys schools include some of the top academic schools in the country, as do the all-girls. Look at the Sunday Times league tables! But there are also some all-girls schools which are small(ish) and a great deal less academic, concentrating as much on supporting the personal development of the students as their academic curriculum. 

Single-sex teaching is different from mixed – whether or not you like it only you can tell. Diamond schools – where pupils are mixed to age 11, then taught separately and brought together again for the Sixth Form - are thought by some to enable both sexes to perform better. Some of the bigger and better all-boys schools started taking girls in the sixth form (to improve both their balance sheet and their A-level results, it is said); on occasion the success of this has led to introducing co-education throughout. It is rare to find a girls’ school with a mixed sixth form.

Big guns or not?

Pay and conditions – the latter including the amount of teaching you are expected to do, how late you stay there each day, whether you work weekends – will vary immensely. However if the school is a member of one of the Big Gun recognised organisations – HMC, IAPS, GSA, SHMIS – you should expect pay and conditions to be at least as good as in the maintained sector. In smaller schools, this may not be so. 

Proprietorial school or governors?

An independent school that has a Board of Governors is the most common; all HMC, GSA, IAPS and SHMIS schools have these (it’s a condition of membership for them all) and the Governors are an appeal route for both staff and parents in case of grievance or dispute.  

Some schools are owned – hence proprietorial – by an individual, a couple or a family. Often the owner is the Head. These can be warm and caring environments for both pupils and staff, but may on occasion be financially less sound, especially if they are very small, and may not always offer the same conditions of service as the Big Guns do. You may find, for example, that they do not always pay into the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, nor give the same sick pay or maternity pay as teachers get in the maintained sector, and the pay may be less too. Check it out before you accept a job, or before you even apply.

Is size important?

Independent schools come in all sizes; a quick flick through the ISC website found a school catering for years 7-13 with only 88 pupils, and another which has years 9-13 with 1,310; one has 20 times as many per year group as the other. It’s a case of what you feel comfortable with, bearing in mind that any school will need enough pupils to pay the bills and the salaries this year, next year, and in the future.

Littl’uns, big’uns - or both?

Maintained schools (with the odd county that has dug its heels in for Middle Schools) are either infant, junior (or combined as primary), or secondary. Independent schools sometimes cut them up differently, and give them different names.

Pre-prep can be from aged 2 up to 6. Prep can be from 4-11, or 7-11, or 7-13. Senior can be from 11-16, 11-18 or 13-18 – the latter mainly big public schools for boys. Many schools are all-through schools, ages 4-18, with a prep or junior school that feeds into its senior school. The term ‘secondary school’ is not used.

Group or stand-alone?

Although I said at the start that independent schools are individual, there are some which are in Groups. These may be small groups – perhaps just a boys’ school and a girls’ school with the same name - but some are quite large. 

Being in a group can mean more financial stability and greater opportunities for professional development. For managers it can be good to be in a group, as you have colleagues to discuss issues with; for heads in particular this is an advantage. A couple of the groups have been expanding into sponsoring academies, so have a maintained-sector arm too. 

Among the best-known groups are:

Cognita has over 50 schools in the UK; across Europe and South-East Asia. Founded and run by Chris Woodhead, Ex Chief Inspector of Schools

GEMS 12 schools in the UK, another 90+ internationally. Very strong in Middle East.

Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) – 24 schools plus 2 academies

United Church School Trust (UCST)  11 schools plus 19 academies

Woodard 19 wholly-owned schools, plus 22 affiliated schools – state schools that “have joined the Woodard family in order to share best practice, latest thinking and experience.” They also sponsor two academies in West Sussex, and are planning in sponsoring some in Kent.


Read more on independent schools

FAQ independent sector

How much will I get paid in an independent school?