An overview of the Independent sector

30th June 2013 at 01:00

An overview of the Independent sector



As a former head of a very large HMC school, I have a pretty good idea of how the independent sector works. You may be wondering whether this sector is right for you, or even whether you’re right for the sector. This overview will help you decide.  The first thing to note may well be that you have a number of false ideas about the sector overall, which may apply to just a handful of the schools.  You may know only the school in your local area, and what is true of that may not be true of any other at all. Because the independent sector is extremely diverse, and what applies to one school may well not apply to another.


Beginners start here!


But first let me give you a clue: an independent school is always looking for just one thing: an outstanding teacher who is deeply committed to the welfare and progress of pupils and their academic and personal development. Not so different from a maintained school, then!  When you are applying - if you apply - you will need to remember this, and show that you have the enthusiasm for teaching and the high aspirations for your pupils, as well as a keenness to contribute generously to the co-curricukar programme of clubs, sports and activities.


Moving from state to independent


Private, Public or Independent?


So what do you call these schools, for starters?  Private and independent mean much the same, and all the schools I am talking about come under those umbrellas.  But public?  It seems a contradiction in terms, especially when what we call maintained or state schools are called public schools in US, France, Spain, Italy and doubtless many other countries. 


Independent, private or public, they have in common that they charge fees (although there may be generous grants and bursaries).  The other factor that they have in common is that they are all independent in the sense that they are able to operate outside government regulations and statutory guidance.  This doesn't mean that they can ignore all officialdom.  They have to conform to offical standards of education, health and safety etc, their pupils generally sit the state examinations of GCSE and A-level (some do the IB suite of qualifications) and all are regularly inspected.


What, therefore, is a public school?    It is a long-established and expensive (and thus exclusive) fee-paying independent secondary school. Traditionally, public schools were all-male boarding schools, for pupils aged 13-18.  Nowadays they may admit day pupils, start at year 7, and some have become either partially or fully co-educational.  The original public schools were Charterhouse, Eton College, Winchester College, Harrow School, Rugby School, Shrewsbury School, and Westminster, but tabloid newspapers often use public schoool as a general term for any expensive boarding school - or even non-boarding boys' schools.


To sum up:

all public schools are independent schools but not all independent schools are public schools. 


Let's look at the variety of schools that make up the independent sector.


Day or boarding?


You know what a day school is, you probably work in one already.  Day schools in the independent sector may have a longer school day, however: 8.30 to 4.00 for example.  In exchange there is likely to be more PPA time for you - my school was not uncommon in giving 20%, the equivalent of a whole day free (but not actually a day, of course), so more marking and preparation could be done in school time.  We don't call it PPA, by the way; generally there are fewer trendy (or non-trendy) acronyms in the independent sector.


But how would your life change if you worked in a boarding school?


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. Supervision could mean just that: merely being there. But you might also be expected to organise activities, get them up from in front of the television to play a game or sport, organise trips out on a weekend, anything to prevent RSI from over-use of their phones.  On Exeats - weekends where the pupils go home - there is usually a rota of teachers who help the foreign pupils remaining in school to feel that they are having a special time too, with treat outings to the cinema, theatre, zoo etc.,  so on an occasional Exeat weekend you could at the school's expense have quite a nice time.




Boarding schools generally pay extra whack for this participation in boarding duties on evenings and weekends – 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, depending on your role in boarding.    This accommodation can on occasion be a large flat or even a whole house in the school grounds that can be suitable for a family, although these are generally for those who have a larger role than just boarding staff - A Housemaster/mistress or his/her Deputy typically.


These schools quite often have shorter terms (even shorter than other independent schools where 160 - 170 days a year is the norm), which in some ways counterbalances the extra hours worked in the 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.  


Schools with boarders almost always have something highly organised - classes or sport - on a Saturday morning, as well as one weekday afternoon of sport.  Some traditional day schools have Saturday morning lessons, but if they do, often have Wednesday or Thursday afternoon as sport. Some boarding schools give an enormous amount of time to sport, and a willingness to join in as a trainer or referee will be welcomed, so make this clear in your application.


All boys, all girls, mixed or diamond?


The all-boys schools in the independent sector include some of the top academic schools in the country, as do the all-girls.  You have only to look at the  League Tables produced by the Sunday Times or the Daily Telegraph to see how single-sex schools dominate.  These top schools are generally large as well as very successful, whether day or boarding.   But there are also some single-sex, usually all-girls and boarding, 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 in years 7-11 finally being brought together again for the sixth form - are thought by some to enable both sexes to perform better. 


Some of the bigger all-boys schools have started to take 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’s rare to find a girls’ school with a mixed sixth form, however, and there are girls' schools which are successful up to year 11, then lose a number of pupils to the mixed sixth form in a local boys' independent school..  How to turn back the tide is a perennial question for girls' school in the independent sector, so if you are applying for, say, a Head of Sixth Form in such a school, you will need to have some clear ideas and a strategy for this.


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 recognised independent school organisations, such as HMC, IAPS, GSA,  SoH (formerly SHMIS), you should expect pay and conditions to be at least as good as in the maintained sector.   The membership, therefore, of one of these top professional organisations is a good sign for you as a teacher.


In smaller schools, you may not get the pay and conditions of service that you currently enjoy in the maintained sector.


Proprietorial school or governors?


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


Some schools do not have a Board of Governors, but are owned – hence proprietorial – by an individual, a couple or a family.  Often the owner is the headteacher who has set the school up as a business, and as a way of life. These schools can be warm and caring environments for both pupils and staff.  However, they 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 bigger schools.


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. 


I would advise you to find out exactly what is on offer before you accept, before you are interviewed, in fact before you even apply.  The way to do this is to e-mail the Bursar at the school.  Of course you may feel a little hesitant about contacting a school where you are going to apply, asking about conditions of service including maternity or sick pay.  Very understandable.  But it could perhaps be done more discreetly if you happened to have a second e-mail address (or your partner does) with a name that is not the nice professional name on the e-mail that you use for applications and other official business.


Is size important?


Independent schools come in all sizes; a quick browse 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. It’s a case of what you feel comfortable with, bearing in mind that a larger school may have greater financial stability than a smaller one.  


It can be of interest to look a school up on the Charity Commission website - if it is a charity - and just have a quick look at whether it seems to be paying its way over the last couple of years.


I can tell you now - you needn't bother to check up on The Kynge's College of our Ladye of Eton beside Windesore, aka Eton College, as it regularly manages a surplus of £3,000,000 of income over expenditure.


A 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 are either infant, junior (or combined as primary), or secondary.  Those are both the divisions that we are used to, and the nomenclature.  Independent schools sometimes cut them up differently, and nearly always give them different names, which you will need to get used to.  


And while I am on the subject of names . . . it is rare for a Head in the independent sector to be called a Headteacher. They are called Headmaster, Headmistress, High Master, High Mistress, Principal, Warden, or just . . . Head.  I once advertised for a Deputy Head, and received an application from a candidate who applied for the post of Deputy Headteacher.  Somebody who hadn't bothered to read our documentation or website and just blithely wrote what he was used to.  You need to know the jargon - see below secondary.  Incidentally, the candidate was appointed - and soon learnt what his actual post was!


This is how, generally, independent schools organise their age groups


  • Pre-prep can be from aged 2 up to 5 or 6. 
  • Prep can be from 4-11, or 7-11, or 7-13.   The 7-13 are clearly feeder schools for the 13-18 senior schools.
  • 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.  


N.B. the term secondary school is not generally 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’ independent school and a girls’ independent school with the same name and the same governing body - but some are quite large. 


Being in a group can mean more financial stability and greater opportunities for professional development. For school leaders at middle and senior level 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. In one of the groups - United Learning - the academies have overtaken the Independent Schools in number.


Among the best-known groups are these below.  The figures for the number of schools may not be accurate; these groups take on new schools, merge schools, close schools, open schools . . . So check on their website if the real actual number is very important to you.  The figures I give will provide an overview of the relative size of the different groups.



Cognita -  The group was founded  in 2004, with a single school in the United Kingdom, by Chris Woodhead, ex Chief Inspector of Schools.  There are 66 schools worldwide, in Europe, Latin America and South-East Asia. They employ some 4,600 teaching and support staff in the care and education of  30,000 pupils. In the UK they have 43 schools which offer nursery, pre-preparatory, preparatory, senior and all-through provision.  


GEMS  -  half-a-dozen schools in the UK, another 70+ internationally. Very strong in the UAE.


Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) - 24 schools plus 2 academies.  The GDST is the leading group of independent girls’ schools in the UK. There are nearly 20,000 pupils in the GDST’s 24 schools and two academies, throughout England and Wales, of whom about 6,000 are in GDST junior and prep schools.  It employs approximately 3,700 staff.


United Learning  - 55 schools in all (winter 2015), a mix of primary academies, secondary academies, all-through academies, and  day or day-and-boarding independent schools, the latter both all-through and junior only.  Overall they have about 36,000 pupils.  New schools are joining as academies the whole time - 9 in 2014 alone, for example. The 14 independent schools in the group (which until 2000 were the only schools - all the Academies have come since) include some of the best schools in the country.


Woodard  - The schools are very diverse and range from boarding, day, private, state, nursery, prep, senior, single sex and co-educational.  There are 22 wholly-owned Woodard independent schools, 3 associated independent schools, plus 17 affiliated schools – state schools that “have joined the Woodard family in order to share best practice, latest thinking and experience.” They also sponsor five academies. 


Further reading



An overview of the Independent sector

Independent Sector FAQs

How much will I earn in the independent sector?

Moving from state to independent

Teachers talk about what it's like working in one Indy School

Doing NQT induction in an independent school





Best wishes