It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Charles Dickens’ famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities is especially apposite for the independent sector this week. Not only is the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference – the organisation that represents most fee-paying schools in the UK – meeting in Manchester to discuss the major issues affecting the sector, but the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham is also taking place. And you would think that both organisations would be upbeat about the sector: more students are attending independent schools in the UK than ever before, preparing thousands of highly motivated, academically ambitious students
And, as the Times reported this week, the sector is rapidly expanding overseas, with a record number of schools being welcomed with open arms by the governments of China, Singapore, Egypt, Oman and India.
You’d think that this success story would be trumpeted by Tories keen to show the world (and, more importantly, each wing of the party) that British companies can establish markets outside of the EU, and especially so, post-Brexit. You would think that independent schools would be chipper about their futures, brimful of international-mindedness that they are and struggling to provide enough places to satisfy demand. Surely, these are the best of times to be involved in independent schools.
Well, not really. In some respects, if you read the mood music coming out of Whitehall, as well as various media outlets and social media, independent schools appear to be legitimate targets for all those who want to rail against privilege. And in this respect, it is the worst of times.
We read, seemingly weekly, that we should be doing more, or risk abolishment in the future (this last statement being made by a Conservative minister); other, more familiar foes demand that we should have our charitable status taken away immediately. Meanwhile, Melissa Benn, one of the more nuanced critics, argues for state and independent sectors to be "merged" – a rather weasel word that effectively adds up to a familiar fate: abolition.
And for the first time since I have worked in the sector, we have few, if any, political allies. I would guess that the current secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, will not mention independent schools once during the conference. Nor will any leading Conservative seek to defend independent schools from the attack dogs of Corbyn’s (public school-educated) advisers. You will look in vain for recent photographs of ministers talking up the sector as being a world leader (which it clearly is).
We are, for many in the party, the dirty secret they are too embarrassed to admit to knowing (or attending, or sending their own children to). And even though we are not directly responsible for Brexit, or all the woes that have come out of that particular Pandora’s Box, we are quickly and inevitably dragged into it all, principally because two old Etonians were deeply involved in the process (along with ex-pupils of grammar schools and state schools who don’t have their schooling regularly thrown at them).
As anyone who has read Robert Verkaik’s recent book, Posh Boys: how the English public schools ruin Britain, independent schools are a convenient scapegoat to hang many of society’s problems on, but those that seek to attack them are in many cases doing so for other, covert reasons that are more about political opportunism than deeply held values. And the dislike that the political commentariat and policymakers so frequently display against our schools is, according to the Sutton Trust, not shared by a significant proportion of the electorate. Indeed, many voters would, if they could, send their children to a fee-paying school.
The Conservative Party, once the advocates of competition and aspiration, seem to have forgotten what it believes in, preferring instead to fight an endless internecine war. But at a time when this country needs all the overseas networks it can form, and all the friendships it can sustain, it may be worth some delegates in Birmingham looking beyond the solipsistic arguments that have divided their party, and now the country, so deeply, and for so long, and instead head north to talk to sector leaders who have skillfully negotiated complex agreements based on mutual trust and shared aims, as well as excellence, to create something unrivalled, and truly world class.
Lessons, as they say, could be learned.
David James is deputy head, academic, at Bryanston School