Don't pay private heads less - pay state heads more

This predictable criticism of the amount that independent school leaders are paid misses the point, says David James

David James

Independent schools: Don't pay private school headteachers less - pay state school headteachers more, says David James

The publication of a “rich list” of independent school leaders will have brought much glee to the familiar critics of the sector, but not much surprise to those schools named in the report. 

Those of us who work in the sector have long become accustomed to being strawmen in an increasingly bitter culture war between the forces of perceived privilege and those who favour a less-stratified educational system. Eton recently became caught up in cancel culture, and that particular school seems to be a lightning rod for any grievance against leading politicians, the class system, the Royal Family…the list, as they say, goes on. 

But, as with all things relating to schools, it’s always better to look beyond the headlines, and to question the assumptions made by journalists scanning the Charity Commission website. Because none of this is news: as charities, independent schools have to publish their accounts, and anyone interested in our finances can easily find the details of any independent school they are interested in.

Should you wish to do so, you will find that St Paul’s School has an income of more than £40 million, and an expenditure of more than £36 million. It employs nearly 300 people – but there will also be many companies, both local and national, partly or wholly reliant on that school’s viability, whether it is caterers, cleaning companies, bus companies and so on. The head of this school is on a salary of £335K.

Private schools: What is the appropriate salary for a headteacher?

When you look at the scale of this school’s operations, the obvious question is: what would be the appropriate salary for its CEO? More? Less? Why? What criteria would be applied, and what criteria would those critics use that would be better informed that those used by the school’s governors? The reality is that salaries for senior leaders are determined by the marketplace.

But some of the issues highlighted do need to be addressed by independent schools. Even though much work has been done to be more inclusive in their recruitment of staff, it has to be wrong that senior male school leaders continue to be paid more than their female counterparts, or that there is not greater parity between girls’ and boys’ schools in rewarding outstanding headmistresses. But comparisons are tricky.

Some of these schools are boarding, some day, some large, some medium-sized, some selective, some not, some with overseas income streams, some without. 

Schools across the country celebrated International Women’s Day this week, and governors in all independent schools should commit themselves to recruiting with greater diversity, irrespective of tradition or student intake, and rewarding women leaders for the outstanding work they do.

And let’s be clear. At a time when there is a growing crisis in maintained schools in retaining headteachers, there should be recognition that the job, although different, is no less demanding in the independent sector

Maybe independent schools aren't the problem

A head of a fee-paying school will lead a large workforce, will be accountable to very involved governors who set high standards and expectations, and could be responsible for dealing with branches in other parts of the world, as well as being under relentless pressure to attract students from these markets. They will also have to meet the demands of parents investing considerable sums in their children’s education, as well as the countless other daily challenges that anyone involved in schools today faces. 

Every headteacher I know is working very long days and throughout their holidays, to keep their schools successful. And successful they often are: oversubscribed, meeting their key performance indicators, and hugely attractive to those who want to work in them.

The argument should not be about how much independent school senior leaders are paid, but about why state school colleagues are not paid more. Don’t allow those who are naturally divisive to make us lose sight of this obvious truth. 

An outstanding head in a state school, who transforms the lives of thousands of children, is like gold. Pay them top dollar, and also those around them who make that daily miracle happen. 

The critics of the independent sector often allow personal politics to get in the way of the fact that, once the deafening noise of money is removed from the debate, these are still schools educating students. We try our best to send them into the world as happy, successful, balanced, talented young people who will go on to make a valuable contribution to our society. 

So, to return to my original question around this distracting debate: if a head of a school can do that, what price would you put on it? To me, it’s almost priceless. 

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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