An introduction to independent schools

The Independent Schools’ Council (ISC) and the Good Schools’ Guide (GSG) both give useful information on independent schools.  However, to get the detailed stuff about an individual school you need to pay and, above all, this is information given solely from the parents’ point of view, not a teacher’s. Here, then, is a quick summary of the differences between independent schools from a teacher’s viewpoint. 

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.  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.  Boarding schools may also have shorter terms.  Some 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.  But there are also some all-girls schools which are small(ish) and a great deal less academic.  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 to enable both sexes to perform better.  Some of the bigger and better all-boys schools have started taking girls in the Sixth Form; on occasion the success of this has led to introducing co-education throughout.

Big guns or not?
Pay and conditions – 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 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 Agency 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.

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.

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 aged 6.  Prep can be from 4-11, or 7-11, or 7-13.  Senior can be from 11-16, 11-18 or 13-18 – this latter mainly big Public Schools for boys.  Many schools are all-through schools, ages 4-18, with a Prep School that feeds into its Senior School.

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 (although one group announced in October that it was closing 2 Prep schools in December), 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 about 40 schools in the UK, three in Spain, two in Singapore.  Founded and run by Chris Woodhead, Ex Chief Inspector of Schools

GEMS 11 schools in the UK, another 90 internationally.  Very strong in Middle East.

Girls’ Day School Trust(GDST) – 25 schools plus 1 academy

United Church School Trust(UCST)  10 schools plus 15 academies

Woodard  23 wholly-owned schools, plus 17 affiliated schools – state schools that “have joined the Woodard family in order to share best practice, latest thinking and experience.

Independent school or academy?
An Academy is an independent state school - i.e. funded and controlled partly by the state and partly by private sponsorship.  All Academies (sometimes called City Academies) have a significant measure of administrative autonomy, and often have different pay and conditions from maintained schools for their staff.  They also have Sponsors who give money to them as a charitable act – usually over £1million - and may direct the management and governance of the Academy in order to improve them. 

The academies are set up to replace secondary schools, but rarely ‘normal’ ones, rather those that were judged to be failing, often the very worst ones; the sponsors are trying to make education better for the pupils in these schools, and many of them are succeeding, although it is an uphill job.  The academies are in areas of social and economic deprivation, usually inner city.  They are not equivalent to independent schools in terms of facilities, conditions of employment, student behaviour etc. , although they are doubtless hoping to achieve at least the latter.

In February 2007, the National Audit Office published a report about the performance of the first academies.

Need more advice? Visit the Ultimate guide to jobseeking