Do ‘lazy stereotypes’ put parents off private schools?

9th October 2015 at 00:00
They also threaten state-school partnerships, sector leader warns

“Lazy stereotypes” about straw boaters and top hats and tails are putting parents off sending their children to private schools, according to the new leader of the country’s largest independent schools association.

In a TES interview, Julie Robinson, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), also claimed that this false image was deterring some state schools from working in partnership with their fee-charging counterparts.

She said the media’s portrayal of independent schools using “Mr Chips’ photos” and pictures of students wearing “tails and boaters” was “unhelpful” to the sector.

“The way independent schools are often characterised is according to this stereotype of the well-endowed, enormous public school,” Ms Robinson said. She represents more than 1,200 UK private schools and pointed out that most are far smaller, with far lower fees.

“But even those places [major public schools] are offering lots of free places now,” she added. “So I think anyone who looks at the facts would agree independent schools are doing what they can to make their schools as accessible as possible.”

She was speaking ahead of this week’s annual meeting of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) in St Andrews – a gathering of the leaders of 275 elite ISC schools.

On Tuesday, Chris King, HMC chairman and head of the independent Leicester Grammar, attacked critics of private schools for “indulging in toffism and out-of-date preconceptions about the nature of our schools” (read more at bit.ly/Toffism).

Ms Robinson, the former head of Vinehall preparatory school in East Sussex, suggested that such stereotypes were perpetuating the divide between the sectors.

“When I was a head, I approached numerous schools [about setting up partnerships] and very few responded,” she said. “This is where these stereotypes are not helpful, because if it were the case that those schools assumed I was some kind of standoffish stereotype school, then perhaps they perceived a barrier.

“But I didn’t perceive any barrier whatsoever. I had the greatest of respect for all my local schools in all circumstances.”

‘Perception of poshness’

However, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL union, which represents teachers in the state and independent sectors, said it was not always a “perception of poshness” that stood in the way of partnerships. “State schools can be run ragged trying to handle accountability pressures, and they can see partnerships as a nice thing to have but not essential, so in those cases they don’t prioritise them,” she said.

Ms Robinson said the popular impression that fee-paying schools were attended mainly by “really old-fashioned, elitist, monied kind of families” was putting off some parents.

“Parents who might consider some of our schools, parents for whom our schools might be affordable and might be right for their children, could be put off by that perception, that stereotype,” she added. “I was a head in a nice area, but there were plenty of parents who would come and say, ‘I’m not your typical prep school parent’. Actually, they were my typical parent, but they didn’t see themselves according to the stereotype that is perpetuated of our schools.”

Ms Robinson said that many fee-paying parents were “going without a second holiday or a second car, or they’re controlling the cost of their home in order to afford fees”.

Mr King also called on critics of independent schools to “stop believing that you can make the weak stronger by making the strong weaker”. “Instead of carping, accept we want to make a positive contribution,” he said.

But Dr Bousted said it would be “misconceived” to view independent schools as “strong” and state schools as “weak”. “In the state and the independent sectors, there are some very good schools and some that frankly need to improve,” she added.

The mutual benefits of collaboration

Julie Robinson (pictured), general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, believes partnerships with the independent sector could help state primary schools to cope with the huge demand for language teachers after the introduction of compulsory primary language teaching last year.

Preparatory schools used subject-specialist teachers “as a matter of course”, Ms Robinson said, adding: “Where those teachers can cross over with primary teachers who are generalists, there are huge gains on both sides.

“The school where I was teaching had a subject-specialist German, French and Latin teacher with all the materials required for that age group.

“A [state] primary school teacher making friends [with preparatory school teachers] could use those materials, and that subject specialist teacher could visit the primary school and pick up all sorts of things [such as] data collection, assessment and using technology in the classroom. There’s a lot of crossover in a really mutually beneficial way.”

She added: “It’s a great waste if lots of different teachers are teaching similar age groups but are not even comparing resources. They could tackle that workload challenge, to an extent, by sharing ideas.”

In it together

Independent schools will be asked to publish details of their partnerships with state schools on a new website being developed by the Independent Schools Council.

The initiative, details of which were first revealed by TES in March, aims to dispel preconceptions that independent schools are “bastions of privilege”.

Called Schools Together, the website is under development and will go live early next year.

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