State schools, once dogged by fighting, pot-smoking pupils, are now threatening to put their independent rivals out of business, according to an old Etonian who advises wealthy parents on education.
Ralph Lucas, the hereditary peer who is editor-in-chief and owner of The Good Schools Guide, says that the state sector has improved beyond all recognition in the three decades since his publication began.
“Looking back at the history of the thing, when I was looking at schools for my kids in London [in the 1980s], we went around Fox Primary [in Notting Hill]. I was told by the head, ‘We don’t teach children here, we give them the opportunity to learn,’” the 12th Baron Lucas and 8th Lord Dingwall says.
“And what was clear was they were given an opportunity to fight, regularly, and not learn much. Then we went around Holland Park School [a west London comprehensive] and, at break time, the place was full of kids out on the lawn smoking pot.
“Now they are both in the guide. I would be very happy to send a child to both schools.”
This shift is reflected in the guide. When it started in 1986 there were just 10 state schools included. But by last year, nearly a third of those listed were state-funded – 265 out of 888 (see graphic, right).
Future editions will have “a lot more”, Lord Lucas tells TES in an interview to mark the publication’s 30th anniversary. The change had happened “completely organically” as more parents have recommended their local school, he adds. But while the state sector has bloomed, independent schools in this country are on the wane, the Conservative peer claims.
Lord Lucas says that there will always be a market for private schools – for example, those offering something special like a polo team – and there have been big improvements in the sector over the years.
But he also predicts that “the trend over the next 50 years will be for the independent sector to reduce.
“The rise of the state system and it being free is a very difficult thing for the independent sector, as a whole, to resist.
“Some of them will respond very well. I’m not pessimistic about it, but I think the general trend, the baseline that they are up against, is of slow shrinkage and that they will have to run really hard to stay where they are and run even harder to make progress.”
Money’s no object
His comments come the week after TES revealed that Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council and a former head of Harrow School, had called on independent headteachers to cut their fees to attract parents disillusioned by recent budget cuts in state schools.
But Lord Lucas believes that parents, who pay up to £675 for personal advice from his organisation on the best state schools, are attracted by the state sector’s innovation. He says that this is encouraged by state schools’ ability to work together through academy chains and other groupings.
This gives leaders of these school groups “real time and space to innovate rather than just having to firefight”, he explains.
Meanwhile, Lord Lucas says that independent schools are suffering from increasing homogeneity. They have become “much more conformist in how they teach” as parents demand top exam results in exchange for ever-spiralling fees. “You get islands of excellence in independent schools,” Lord Lucas says. “It’s a terribly fragmented system, terribly dependent on the way it presents itself to where the money comes from next year.”
He says that the improvement in state schools is also down to leaders having more ambition for their pupils than previously; to them understanding the importance of clear discipline structures and being innovative in tackling issues such as special needs.
“When that becomes part of a school – when it’s been around long enough and that’s the way the school is – then the fees of independent schools start to be a serious disincentive. It’s really a question of: ‘What extra am I getting?’” he says. “You start to get a serious bleed out of the independent system.”
Lord Lucas’ 1,600-page, £40 guide – which is compiled by a team of 70 reviewers who gather information on schools via parents – now praises Holland Park for having a “relentlessly innovative” approach to the curriculum and “exceptional” sports facilities.
“The understanding that you can run a school to high standards in the state sector, whatever your circumstances, is there and that means over time the system is getting better and better,” the peer says. “[State schools] understand what it takes to do well.”
The independent sector ‘is very resilient’
Julie Robinson (pictured, right), general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, which represents around half of the UK’s 2,400 independent schools, says that the private sector has “remained very resilient over the years” and pupil numbers are on the rise.
She denies Lord Lucas’ allegation of “conformism” in teaching. “Our schools pride themselves on their independence and benefit from freedoms to select curriculum and exams – so they are innovative and often specialise, adapting to local needs. This much-treasured independence should not be confused with fragmentation”, she says.
Chris King, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference league of 275 top private schools, does not believe that the lack of innovation Lord Lucas claims is in the sector is “widespread”. But he acknowledges the difficulties ahead, adding: “There is an ongoing challenge to educate the children for the future world they’ll live in, and for schools to provide it at a fee that parents can afford.”