Don’t pit independents and state schools against each other

Critics bemoan the divide between mainstream and private education, but by lambasting independent schools as the cause of the problem, politicians overlook the role the sector could play in bridging the gap and raising standards for everyone, argues headteacher Melvyn Roffe
8th March 2019, 12:04am
Bridging The Gap


Don’t pit independents and state schools against each other

Apparently, too many Etonians become actors, or is it that there are too many Harrovians in the music industry? There are certainly too many Olympic rowers, cyclists, yachtspeople (the “sitting-down sports”, in other words) who come from “posh schools”. And that, it seems, is our fault.

I do wonder how many aspiring state-school educated cyclists were pushed off their bikes by the overindulged products of independent schools on their way to the Olympic finals. Or could it be instead that the historic underfunding of elite sport in the UK (only quite recently rectified thanks to the National Lottery) made it generally difficult for most people to pursue those sports at a high level? But that would mean it wasn’t independent schools’ fault at all. So that can’t be the reason.

Now, independent schools are even being blamed for Brexit. No matter that, for every public school buffoon whose sense of overwhelming entitlement has driven us to the brink, there are a huge number of others with far more progressive credentials. From my own school alone, I could name an architect of the European Convention on Human Rights, one of the founding parents of the Scottish Parliament, a judge of the European Court of Human Rights, the first openly gay MP and a United Nations representative for women in Iraq.

And that’s not to mention the thousands of other former pupils whose contribution as doctors, dentists, lawyers, journalists, teachers, academics, police officers, probation officers, social workers - or just as good neighbours - helps to make the world a bit better for those who live in it. Brexit or no Brexit.

It would be good to have a real debate about independent schools and our role in society, but that debate should be subject to just a little bit of rational and objective scrutiny.

Does it ever occur to anyone that the over-representation of the products of “top schools” in “top jobs” owes more to the social circumstances of the 1950s and 1960s, when many of them started school, than it does to the 21st century? If it does occur to anyone, they probably don’t care. What says it all is that famous photograph (you will have seen it because newspaper picture editors love it), the black-and-white image of some 1930s public schoolboys in top hats looking down their noses at a group of ordinary-looking kids in the street. We know what we think: we’re all on the side of the ordinary kids. No one wants to wear a top hat these days. Well, almost no one.

I do not claim to be a dispassionate commentator, but then it seems that only those with an axe to grind get to write on this subject. If it matters, before I became the very proud principal of an independent school in Edinburgh, I enjoyed the equal privilege of leading two state-funded schools in England. And my own school days were spent in good but unremarkable state schools.

So here’s my contribution to the debate. I know it’s unfashionable, but I’d like to start with some facts and to dispel some myths.


Idealism knows no bounds

First, independent schools do not leech off the state. Yes, we currently benefit from 80 per cent non-domestic rate relief, which saves my school some £400,000 a year. But set against the £14 million that my school annually saves the Scottish government by relieving it of the cost of educating 2,400 children, that looks like a good deal.

The other tax break we get as a charity is the same as any other charity - namely, Gift Aid on donations. And what does that go towards? Funnily enough, into saving the state even more money by providing free places to children whose families couldn’t otherwise afford our fees. Again, 27p for every pound invested seems a pretty good deal.

Second, independent schools are not full of ignorant, arrogant, privileged kids being trained to trample the poor of the world. Like all schools, we educate a range of children. No doubt some are less sensitive than they should be and, inevitably, some behave better than others, but there are plenty of children at my school who have few enough privileges in life - apart from the privilege of attending a good school. And the idealism that many of our pupils show in trying to make a positive difference in the world is a humbling contrast to the cynicism of many adults, including many of our critics.

Third, most independent schools are not wealthy. Some have significant endowments, but many operate on a wafer-thin surplus to keep fees as affordable as possible. Even where schools have inherited vast and impressive buildings, the cost of maintenance can make them envy the more modest, practical and cost-effective environment of the latest generation of state schools.

Fourth, independent schools make a significant contribution to the educational capital of the country. Disproportionately, our teachers work for examination bodies in devising, setting and marking the nation’s school-based qualifications. Our schools provide training places for teacher education, ensuring, in particular, that the supply of trained teachers in minority subjects can be sustained. And in many areas of the UK, partnerships between independent and state schools open up opportunities for children from all backgrounds in ways that the state alone could not provide.

Finally, we make a huge contribution to the economy - for example, by providing good-quality jobs in rural areas and, through international recruitment and franchising, boosting the global competitiveness of the UK. The rest of the world understands what our own politicians won’t acknowledge: that British independent schools are a globally significant asset in the emerging knowledge economy.

I confess, I cannot begin to understand the logic that holds, because independent schools are supposedly bastions of elitism, they should be punished (or rather the parents who have the temerity to send their children to them should be fined) by imposing VAT on their school fees or adding a surcharge to pay for state education. As if parents weren’t already paying through their taxes for a service they choose not to use.

If that were to happen, the relatively few ultra-rich independent school parents would pay up without baulking at the extra cost, but many others would reluctantly move their children into state schools, costing the taxpayer far more than would be raised. Some schools would close, but the others would become truly elitist in a way they are not at the moment.


We’re not a ‘cuckoo in the nest’

So how could such a measure possibly help anyone? The only plausible argument I have heard is that, somehow, the engagement of those parents in state education would add to the cultural capital of state schools, which would benefit from the concern of more middle-class parents.

Not only is this argument shockingly patronising to state-school parents, whose engagement in their child’s school is thereby demeaned, but it also conveniently overlooks the many hours of support that people whose own children go to independent schools nevertheless devote to the state sector in every possible capacity.

The inconvenient truth about independent schools is that they are not an aberration, an unacceptable cuckoo in the nest of education in this country. It is true that independent schools are not common in much of continental Europe, but in just about every other part of the world they are integral to the educational environment, whether it is a little school in a shack by the road in Uganda, state-franchised enterprise in China or one of the famous prep schools of North America.

We are told that Finland closed private schools and now has one of the best education systems in the world. Well, good for the Finns. Presumably the quality of their system is nothing to do with the Finnish government’s preparedness to spend a very serious percentage of gross domestic product on education - not least on remunerating the teaching profession.

And how about this for a delicious irony? When the UK government attempted to show that it was doing quite well in spending on education (although still a long way behind Finland), it used figures that included (wait for it) the amount of money that parents paid in fees to independent schools.


Challenging ‘cosy orthodoxies’

It used to be different. When many of the “top people” went to their “top schools”, a lot of those schools were - like mine - places of aspiration for all. Supported by the state, they were fully part of the local educational provision. Why did so many successful people go to them? Not because they were all bastions of elitism but because many were engines of social mobility. Not for everyone, granted, but they opened up opportunities that otherwise would have been closed to far more.

People are right to be dissatisfied with the current divide between state and independent education. Having seen both sides of it, I hate it more than most. But the parading of prejudice that passes for debate on the subject must stop. We need a cool, dispassionate look at how the social and educational capital that is represented by the nation’s independent schools can better be focused to meet the societal and educational challenges of today and of the future.

Those challenges are of such magnitude that, whatever anyone may think, we all have an equal interest in addressing them. But they will never be addressed simply by punishing independent schools or those who use them. There is a reason why we prefer the term “independent school” to “private school”. It’s not just semantics. While most of our funds come from the private, taxed income of parents, we have never seen ourselves as private institutions outwith the mainstream of education.

Could it be that one of the reasons politicians don’t like us is that our very independence challenges their cosy orthodoxies? But a healthy society should welcome that challenge. No one would claim that independent schools have all the answers, but we do have a whole range of different approaches, the flexibility to innovate, many talented people and a great deal of relevant infrastructure, at least some of which could be useful in driving our educational system forward. I may be wrong, but shouldn’t we give it a try?

Sadly, we’ve proved ourselves pretty good as a country at trashing what we’ve not bothered to understand. Let’s not make the same mistake with our independent schools.

Melvyn Roffe is principal of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh

This article originally appeared in the 8 March 2019 issue under the headline “Don’t blame independents for the state of things”

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