The struggle of independent schools to find favour with the media, politicians and the public at large has rumbled on in the background for decades. Every so often it reaches the headlines. Ed Dorrell’s contribution to the recently published book The State of Independence: Key challenges facing private schools today portrays the fortunes of the sector as "a political football". This may be a cliché but, as with most clichés, there’s a strong element of truth in it.
HMC executive director Mike Buchanan's rapid riposte points out the good work that independents are doing to widen access and support state schools. Like him, I wish that all schools could have the same stability, high level of funding and quality of sports provision. Levelling up should be the way to go.
But for too long the perceived polarity between maintained and independent has allowed journalists to portray each sector as homogeneous within itself. The reality is far from being so simple. Shining a searchlight on the reality of the maintained sector – something long, long overdue – will reveal a depressing gulf between the well-resourced and those who seem destined by geography, class and school type to remain disadvantaged.
Injustice in state-school funding
There may be public outcry when a politician places their child in a fee-paying establishment, but there is precious little adverse comment when a politician’s child passes through the portals of a prestigious "comprehensive" in Westminster.
Bragging about "doing the right thing" and "supporting the comprehensive system" shows extreme insensitivity to the lot of the vast majority of children. Many of them are educated in damp classrooms with crumbling infrastructure – or temporary buildings that have seen far better days. And then there are the schools that struggle to recruitment so much that they have few (if any) specialist maths or science teachers.
When expressing disdain for the high fees charged by some independents, critics pass over the rampant injustice in state-school funding that exists in this country. And that doesn’t just mean that, somehow, the money deemed by the Department for Education as "sufficient" doesn’t materialise at the chalk-face. As I see it, there are three major issues:
London vs coastal fringes
For too long the schools serving the capital’s children have received far more generous resources than their counterparts on the coastal fringes. Well-publicised successes such as The London Challenge and inner-city regeneration have had money handed over in far more substantial quantities than those needing a similar coastal challenge.
For too long initiatives like Teach First were exclusively based in London. This reflects the excessive London focus that brings the issues of the capital up close under the noses of politicians and philanthropists and shifts other schools right out of focus. If it ain’t happening in London, it ain’t happening.
Grammar schools and leafy comprehensives
Grammar school intakes are increasingly middle-class: they have all the benefits of selective schooling without any of the costs – apart from the short-term expense of coaching for entrance and 11-plus tests.
The continuing privileged existence of leafy comprehensives beloved of estate agents is another issue too often overlooked. The impact of an "outstanding" Ofsted report sets up a cycle of local property inflation so that well-off parents can ensure their children are at a school of their choice. This brings undoubted benefits. School fees only invest in the child’s education: property purchase is a financial investment with the strong likelihood of at least recouping the financial outlay, or more likely emerging with a profit when it’s time to move on.
Perhaps the worst enemy of equality of educational opportunity has been the forced academisation programme under Michael Gove. The fallout of his reform has resulted in thousands of pupils attending schools that have been cast adrift by the failure of academy chains. In the worst cases, the administration of schools by certain multi-academy trusts (MATs) has been so detrimental that the local population has had to fight for the release of their school before the academy trust could close it down.
There may well be some excellent trusts. But the academies experiment bears more resemblance to the competition between supermarket chains than schools, and has been responsible for enormous damage.
Far more should have been done to ensure continuity and stability in the maintained sector. Dismantling traditional partnerships and school types for the sake of a political ideology, without the proper oversight in place, has been exacerbated by the lack of transparency when it comes to public accountability to ensure wise deployment of taxpayers’ money.
At the mercy of market forces
Provision for our children’s education should never have been allowed to degenerate into a quasi-market. Markets by their very nature entail failure as firms go out of business, unable to compete. How is it a responsible policy to allow whole chains of schools to fail? Any institution responsible for the futures of young people should be properly supported. The combination of league tables and the excessive kudos of Ofsted's "outstanding" grading has not resulted in higher standards overall. The system’s very design and ethos result in too many losing out.
Rescuing state education will take years. The independent sector – however altruistically inclined – cannot even begin to make an impact on this deeply flawed system. Sharing facilities and providing a few fully funded places for bright children who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to such schools won’t address the problem of the deep divide.
Attacking independent schools – or dismantling the whole private school system – is not even a partial solution to the problem of deep-rooted inequality.
Instead, there should be an immediate move to make state-school funding more equal: to rebuild schools where they are crumbling beyond repair, to pay more attention to the schools everyone overlooks, and to demolish league tables in the interests of raising standards by collaboration.
That would be the best investment the country could make – and that would be the move that would really topple the independent sector.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama at a school in the south of England