An expensive, nay, glitzy 204-page research report paid for by a private bank that I was recently asked to read claimed a 2012 survey "revealed that 57 per cent of those surveyed would choose to send their child to an independent school if they could afford it." The footnote pointed me to the Independent Schools Council's annual census of their own schools – carried out not in 2012, but in 2014 – which presumably means that parents at 1,257 independent schools, asked if they would choose to send their child to an independent school if they could afford it, thought really hard and long before ticking the little black box that said…yes.
Because I’m the sort of irritating professional who doesn’t just read footnotes, but actually bothers to check them, I ploughed through both the 2012 and 2014 Independent Schools Council (ISC) censuses, but couldn’t find any reference to this 57 per cent parental approval anywhere, in either. The most credible research I could find that asked this question was done by Ipsos MORI in 2008. And, as if by magic, it said that 57 per cent of parents surveyed would choose a private school education for their children if they could afford it.
The reason I’m interested in this is because there is increasing interest politically to see more meaningful educational partnerships established between state and private schools.
Partnerships of a practical or social kind; sharing playing fields; specialist facilities state schools might lack; putting cultural events on together have been happening for a long time. The latest ISC census notes that 88 per cent of their schools have a partnership of one kind or another with a state school and the Schools Together website lists a genuinely varied range of case studies that shows just how much effort some teachers in both sectors are prepared to put into these kinds of joint enterprises, to benefit all the children they teach.
But what’s new is a growing wish to see ideas, projects and collaboration between schools that produce clear classroom benefits. A growing number of professionals are openly looking for mutual benefit that isn’t just a matter of posh kids mingling more, or poor kids learning about Oxbridge; the naive stereotypes ideologically possessed opponents of private schooling love to peddle.
Explaining in a national newspaper article in 2003 her preference for state schooling, Fiona Millar said: "We are…lucky because our kids don't have to go to school in boaters aged 4, and they don't have to be driven across London at the crack of dawn to get there (my nine-year-old walks with her friend). At secondary they belong to a wide community of teenagers from a rainbow of ethnic and social backgrounds."
There are currently 522,879 pupils in independent schools. The highest number since records began in 1974 and 32 per cent of them are from those minority rainbow backgrounds. 16 per cent of all pupils aged 17 and over in England attend independent schools. I couldn't find out what percentage of pupils in London attend independent schools. The Mayor’s 2017 Education Report contains only state-school data, but I’d hazard it’s comfortably above the 7 per cent national figure. I do know it’s 52 per cent of pupils in Kensington and 29 per cent in Richmond. The Sutton Trust published research in 2017 that claimed 50 per cent of all children in London have had private tuition.
Irritated by that glitzy, ambiguous footnote and where it had led me, I contacted the report’s editor and found out that the survey it should have pointed me to had been carried out by Populus, for the ISC, in 2012. They had surveyed 2,057 adults and did indeed find that 57 per cent answered yes when asked: "If you could afford it, would you send your child to an independent school or not?" So having run around a bit, I’m prepared to accept that 57 per cent is a fairly accurate figure.
However, further into the Populus survey, I found another, even more interesting figure. Parents were asked: "Why do you say that you would send your child to an independent school?" And given nine options to choose from, the runaway winner was better standards of education with 51 per cent. The next highest response was smaller classes/smaller pupil-teacher ratio, at a mere 15 per cent.
That impressive 51 per cent figure is indicative of how the world regards an English private education and it’s something as a nation we should be immensely proud of. The Swiss finishing school finished a long time ago and although there are, of course, world-class schools across the world, the largest concentration of them by far is here in the UK, which is why, unlike other nations, we’ve been so successful at exporting them.
It’s high time we started getting more value from them at home too and partnerships between the two sectors, in which teachers work together not to run a concert, or organise a swimming gala, but to improve the experience children have in classrooms, is one of the most positive, intelligent ideas I’ve heard in education for a long time.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue