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Barnaby Lenon: 'Why the next government must preserve the independence of private schools'

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and former headmaster of Harrow school, writes:

Our Election 2015 Manifesto has been published this week. It represents the collective views of our eight membership associations: in total 1,300 independent schools. It is not so much a shopping list as a statement of our main priorities as far as politicians are concerned. 

We do not expect the manifesto to influence policy; but we do want to use it to tackle some common misconceptions about our schools. 

We want to be independent and free to offer a curriculum and exams that are best suited to our children – not dictated to us by the DfE. Free, for example, to offer the iGCSE even though it is now being ignored by government performance tables. Free to push back against state interference because we don't think the state is great at running schools and we think that policies aimed at all schools are often unhelpful. 

We want all our schools to be involved in partnerships with local state schools. Some 90 per cent already are, many have been running since 1997, many are deep-rooted. We observe that the most successful partnerships arise from local networks and are specific to local needs – not driven by the DfE, not following one particular, centrally determined model. But yes, it would be great if all our schools were in partnerships, the level of involvement depending on location and resources. 

We welcome many of Michael Gove's reforms to the exams system. We are especially pleased by steps to control grade inflation and to make exams more rigorous. We would like the exam boards and Ofqual to take further steps to improve the reliability of marking and grading. Above all, we would like a period of stability: time to get to grips with the reformed exams and to assess whether the reforms have the desired effect (raising standards). In the future we would like teachers to be more closely involved in exam reform. 

We dislike the way the government and the Office for Fair Access (Offa) sometimes uses the term 'independent schools' as a proxy for privilege. This is naive, because there are plenty of pupils from wealthy homes in state schools and a third of our pupils are on reduced fees. This is why a third of Oxford students in receipt of a bursary because they come from low-income homes were at independent schools. 

We want to encourage the DfE and Offa to think in terms of individual students, not school type. Many of our schools are small and impecunious. Most are not academically selective. Many specialise in pupils with special needs. Social immobility is not 'caused' by the success of independent schools. It is caused by the failure to lift the educational levels of the weakest 40 per cent of pupils to that achieved in east Asia, by offering qualifications which have little value, by the DfE performance measure of five GCSEs A* to C that capped achievement at C, by poor university and careers advice. 

Independent schools cannot alone solve the problem of social immobility because we only educate 7 per cent of pupils, but in recent years we have all made huge efforts to raise bursary money so that pupils from lower income homes can access our schools. A third of our pupils are now on reduced fees. 

Our main resource is our good teachers. Most are qualified. Those that are not have a good degree from a good university and have been trained in-house. Finding good teachers and training them well remains a priority. Our schools educate about 30,000 pupils from overseas, as they have done for many years. Recently some good applicants have been put off by the visa system and we will continue to fight for their right to come to UK schools. 

Our schools save the taxpayer £3 billion each year. We contribute £9.5 billion per year to the economy. 

Our students achieve a high proportion of the best exam results in important A-level subjects such as modern languages and the sciences. If we can preserve our independence, maintain high standards, offer more and more places to pupils from lower income homes, work in partnership with other local schools – if we can do these things, we will continue to play our part in Britain's educational system.


Since publishing this article the TES has received a formal response from professor Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education: 

I was interested to see Barnaby Lenon’s call for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to “think in terms of individual students, not school type”. In fact, OFFA already thinks in this way. This is precisely why I do not approve access agreements in which universities use school type as their only measure of disadvantage.

OFFA has said publicly on many occasions that going to a state school does not necessarily indicate a disadvantaged background, and being privately educated does not necessarily indicate advantage.







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