'For now, things may be politically peaceful for independent schools, but trouble lies ahead…'

Brexit, recent statistics from Ofsted and a potential Jeremy Corbyn-led government could mean a sharp end to the peace being enjoyed by the independent sector, writes one education journalist

Richard Garner

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The great and good from the independent sector gathered at a Westminster education forum conference last week, and many were optimistic. 

"In many ways, everything is quite peaceful," said Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) and former headmaster of Harrow. "Peace and harmony for a little while – enjoy it while it lasts."

Chris King, current chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and head of Leicester Grammar School, added: "The political scene is as good as it possibly could be."

All this, of course, is thanks to Brexit, which has had the effect of driving almost every other subject off the agenda – and that included a whole lof of pressure planned to be placed on the independent sector courtesy of the now-dead schools green paper.

It is what most of the education world has been praying for for a long time: a moratorium on ideas and initiatives, which will enable teachers in both the state and independent sectors to get on with the job.

And there are even initiatives including both sectors working together that one can savour. For example, take the establishment of Holyport College in Berkshire, a new state boarding free school in partnership with Eton (one of the legacies from Tony Little's enlightened regime as head of that school).

Scratch the surface, though, and there may be trouble ahead for the independent sector – particularly with the recruitment of foreign students. 

Many potential recruits, alientated from considering Britain by Brexit, are looking to countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and even Canada, the education system of which has had a rebirth courtesy of Donald Trump's accession to the US presidency and the perceived view that the US no longer welcomes foreigners.

The thing is, though, as last week's conference probed, the independent sector does not begin and end with the Etons and Harrows of this world, or indeed, the schools under the wing of the ISC, which are trusted to be inspected by their own independent inspection service. There are 1,100 schools outside its remit – largely made up of special schools and faith schools – and here the education on offer to their pupils can be a little bit more precarious.

Take the recent court case involving a Muslim faith school whose policy in segregating boys and girls was recently declared illegal.

According to Philippa Darley, in charge of independent and unregistered schools at education-standards watchdog Ofsted, about 20 schools will have to review their policies in the light of that ruling.

She also revealed that the number of schools classified as good in this part of the sector has fallen from 75 per cent to 68 per cent. Of those declared inadequate, 80 per cent have a safeguarding issue.

Those attending the conference reflected that the benign climate enjoyed by ISC schools at the moment will not last forever. The emergence of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government, for instance, could mean more pressure on them to justify their charitable status.

And the statistics from Ofsted should act as a warning to anyone who harbours a "private good, public bad" approach. 

In other words, the joyous stance being shown by some in the independent sector is not universal.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and previously news editor of Tes. He has been writing about education for more than three decades

To read more columns by Richard, view his back catalogue

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