Michael Gove often used to talk about how Jade Goody left considerable wealth in her will for her children to be privately educated. He saw it as an example of how all parents want the best for their kids. But he also regretted how it needed to be in the private sector. Hence his ambition for the state to match it, so that (as he said in a much-misunderstood speech) the “Berlin Wall” between the two sectors could fall down.
Is his ambition finally becoming reality? According to the owner of The Good Schools Guide, speaking in last week’s TES, quite possibly. He said that improved state schools were threatening the private sector. In response, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, representing the private sector, put out a dismissive statement.
What is happening in the independent sector is complex. The headline figure is that 7 per cent of pupils are being privately educated, a rate that has remained steady for many years (but could not always have been taken for granted: in 1939, a Harrow master warned that amid slumping rolls, “The existence of Harrow is not assured”). And the Independent Schools Council trumpets record numbers of pupils in 2015.
But that 7 per cent has not risen, even as average wealth has. And “record numbers of pupils” is explained by overall population growth; in fact, pupil growth in England has outstripped independent school growth for the past three years.
Plus, an increasing share of the independent sector is made up of international pupils – the figure is 8.5 per cent overall, but 16.3 per cent of new pupils and 36 per cent of boarders.
The main factor driving this stagnation in the sector is rocketing fees. Day fees for private schools have quadrupled in cash terms since 1990 – and have grown three times faster than wages.
Independent schooling is becoming difficult to afford even for professionals. In 2014, one set of day fees plus extras cost 36 per cent of an average doctor’s disposable salary and 50 per cent of a solicitor’s. It is expensive even for those at the top of these professions.
So what The Good Schools Guide may be seeing – as well as undoubted improvement in state education (especially in London) – is a cost-driven UK exodus from the private sector.
The challenge for government is to have people opt for state by choice, not because of cost. And top results are still too unevenly distributed. For every Kensington and Chelsea (the highest-performing council for state schools at GCSE), there’s a Knowsley. For every Westminster, a Wolverhampton.
This is the true Berlin Wall that needs to be addressed.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron