An inability to evolve is a dangerous thing

20th April 2012 at 01:00

Independent schools have put themselves in a very dangerous position; even more dangerous because they don't realise the danger. They owe their existence to their capacity to evolve to meet new circumstances, but for some reason this capacity has frozen, rather like a Dr Who whose regeneration does not work. They are pricing themselves out of the reach of most normal people in the UK.

Even on a salary of more than #163;50,000, it would be exceptionally hard to afford a place at a boarding school, and even many day schools. The result is that the independent sector is becoming socially exclusive in a way not seen since Victorian times. Not only is it in danger of becoming the sole preserve of the super-rich here and overseas, but it is in danger of losing even the tacit support of the average UK voter. For years a majority of people who didn't buy independent education still gave it their tacit support, even if only because they aspired to sending their children there. Yet ask an average citizen now what they get out of independent schools, and whether they would vote to keep them, and I suspect they would not command the vote of a majority. Exponential fee increases have brought about financial and social marginalisation.

The sector is also frozen in the past in that its professional organisations and governance structures are those of the Industrial Revolution, and ill-suited for contemporary society. It has no united voice. It is like a luxury liner, with hundreds of separate and powerful engine rooms, none of which feed in to a central power shaft, and with no recognised captain.

Governance must be one of the few unregulated centres of real power left in the UK. Independent schools are, in effect, businesses. What business in the UK would have as its final authority some 15-20 individuals appointed to their post with no open competition, transparency, accountability or independent appraisal, whose only common denominators were that they were unpaid volunteers and had no experience of running the business they were in charge of?

Independent schools educate only 7 per cent of children in the UK, yet they back too many schemes that "support" state schools by seeking to suck out their best pupils: a brilliant idea for independent schools, but lethal to the health of the state sector.

Proposals for independent schools to support or sponsor city academies ignore the fact that independents have little experience of dealing with children who don't want to go to school and parents who don't care if they do. They also ignore the fact that independents are successful because they are independent, and because their available resource is focused on their pupils; most simply do not have the spare capacity to expend on other schools. There are ways that independents could contribute to the maintained sector, but these have been left unexplored.

Beware fool's gold

The riposte to criticism such as this is that independent schools are heavily oversubscribed and turning pupils away. I fear this is fool's gold. The sector has become too dependent on overseas parents and is profiting from a state sector in some turmoil as a result of radical change. It takes years for the effects of a recession to feed through to independents because most parents will make huge sacrifices to keep a child at a school where they are happy. A recession bites when parents fear starting their child on the 13-year treadmill of fees, and find it cheaper to move to the catchment area of the increasing number of good state schools than to pay independent school fees.

Education secretary Michael Gove's reforms will lead to a massive improvement in the quality of state education in the UK, and will sooner rather than later present independents with the same sort of challenge they last faced from grammar schools. Independents need to realign themselves with their clients. Of course, the "great" schools will survive. Apart from anything else, they thrive in a recession through the rush to quality; why opt for a Championship school when for the same fees you could be in the Premier League? But for most independents in the UK, it is time for a radical rethink on fees.

I have to declare an interest on the issue of fees. I have chosen to work for an international group of fee-paying schools, Gems, dedicated to offering a range and choice of fees and schools, in an attempt to bring independent education within the reach of as many people as possible and make it affordable for more than the super-rich. It is ironic that the so-called "for profit" schools can offer a better deal to parents than charities.

What could independent schools do to evolve? Reduce fees. Use their ability to attract top graduates to teaching and make joint appointments with their local state schools. Form a new academic alliance and professional body of the top 200 independents and the top 200 state schools, to speak with a united voice on and for academic education. Use their independence to be at the sharp edge of innovation and radical thinking. Offer places, at a reasonable rate, in their orchestras and Shakespeare productions to pupils whose schools cannot offer such opportunities. The list is endless, the choice clear: independent schools, like any other species, must evolve or face extinction.

Martin Stephen is director of education at Gems (UK), former high master of St Paul's School, London, and former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

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