'The recession was supposed to spell trouble for independent schools. It has not'

TES Opinion

Barnaby Lenon, chairman, Independent Schools Council and former head of Harrow School, writes:

Wasn’t the worst recession since the 1930s meant to have seen a decline in independent school and pupil numbers, or forced such schools to give up their freedoms and become state-funded academies?

This year’s Independent Schools’ Council (ISC) census reveals the opposite. It shows that there are more pupils educated at the 1,257 ISC schools than last year – a picture of the resilience and stability of independent schools in times of continued economic uncertainty.

Pessimistic projections are wearily predictable from a media that thrives on a diet of anti-independent sector ‘news’, fed by commentators with agendas to pursue. Predictions of the sector’s demise are not new: 40 years ago, the London School of Economics was confidently predicting that “on present trends, the private sector will be catering for perhaps 2 to 3 per cent of all school children by 1980”. Hard facts have a way of making such loose speculation look rather foolish.

The new census is about hard facts. It shows comprehensively and dispassionately what the state of the independent sector is. And overwhelmingly, the facts show the sector is performing well.

There has been growth in the number of pupils of prep-school age at our schools, with an increase of 1.1 per cent this year in the number of those aged 10 and under. This augurs well for the sector’s future. There are now more pupils at ISC schools than there were in 2008 (at the start of the economic downturn) and there are more pupils at our schools this year than last – 511,928, compared to 508,601.

We know that many parents make great sacrifices to send their children to our schools and we are doing our best to help. Fee assistance has increased by an average of 5.1 per cent this year, which brings the total value of fee assistance given by ISC schools to over £660 million – an increase of almost £40 million over last year. Over a third of our pupils receive some form of help with their fees.

So how has the independent sector confounded the predictions of doom and gloom? At the heart of it all are high standards that have put our schools way ahead of the competition. Over half our pupils’ A-levels were graded A*/A last summer, helping them to access the top universities and jobs. Indeed, two reports from Hefce in the past year have shown that independent school pupils outperform state school pupils across a range of benchmarks, including the fact that a higher proportion obtain the best degrees and go on to good graduate employment.

High standards at ISC schools are also apparent from the range of wonderful opportunities for pupils outside the classroom and from the professional approach to pastoral care they offer. Our schools include the best boarding schools in the world and this census contains the news that the number of boarders has risen: there are now 68,453 boarders at ISC schools compared to 66,766 last year.

Above all, it is the hard work of the talented staff at ISC schools – both teaching and non-teaching – who provide the education that parents find so attractive for their children. They are able to do this because of the independence that our schools cherish: undistracted by state-imposed accountability measures, they are free to focus on the needs of each individual pupil. It is therefore no surprise to see the independent schools sector holding steady. You can’t argue with the facts.


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