Why private schools are less privileged than you think

Even those on the political right are rounding on independent schools - but with what justification, asks David James

David James

Pupil premium funding: 'We need positive discrimination for disadvantaged pupils in schools'

If journalists believe that happiness writes in white then, for independent schools in the current climate of illiberal liberalism, such colour palettes look like something out of the Farrow and Ball catalogue.

Our typeface options are not so much “Privileged White” as “Invisible Toff”, because even the good-news stories coming out of the sector in the wilderness newsdays of August were either ignored or couched in empty shades of relative failure and unearned merit.

At this point, you’re probably thinking: “Yeah, yeah. Just another apologist for an old boys’ network that is still run by (and for) various Borises and Dominics.” 

I’d be thinking the same thing if I didn’t know it was wrong. Because, in order to get a more balanced view of what is informing current discussion in this particularly shaded and contentious corner of the educational playground, more light needs to be turned on it. 

Independent schools and political dogma

Then, I would hope, the disagreements that will continue will be more informed, and less driven by politically motivated dogma. A naive hope? Probably. Optimistic? Possibly. But, if this goes well, who knows? I could be singing the opening song at the next NEU teaching union conference, before Gavin Williamson addresses comrades to the deafening silence of tumbleweed rolling by. 

If you want to know which way the political wind is blowing, you need to follow political opportunists so consumed by ambition that they are happy to get into bed with any idea that lubricates their passage upwards. 

Take Michael Gove: he’s so far to the left on independent schools now that even Momentum must be thinking of presenting him with its special Anthony Crosland Tie for Services to Education and Meritocracy. 

And he’s moved there because it’s a desirable place to be. Its views are nicely variable, and the Overton Window that affords such breathtaking approaches has been extended so wide that it’s more like a triple-aspect patio with extendable glass walls (even the editor of The Spectator is happily reporting on failing grades in fee-paying schools). 


There were various claims made over the summer, ranging from the sector choosing scurrilously “soft” alternatives to GCSE, to universities either favouring our students or penalising them (it gets confusing after a while). In fact, independent schools were accused of being so skilled at gaming that you’d think Jaden Ashman was the chair of HMC. 

Prosaic truth is buried under endless tweets and the first 10 hits on Google, and who can be bothered to click more than three times? 

Take the case of IGCSEs. You could argue that independent schools are playing the system, or you could ask if the government is fixing it by insisting that state schools can take only GCSEs in order to ensure that those beloved league tables have consistency of data. 

Independent schools opted for IGCSEs before reformed GCSEs, because they were more rigorous. It was Michael Gove who adapted the national qualifications to make them more like IGCSEs and then (Marxist that he is) abolished all competition. Anyway, the majority of exams taken by 16-year-olds in the independent sector are GCSEs, not IGCSEs. But that’s an inconvenient truth nobody wants to hear.

What about A levels? If state schools are catching up with private schools, that’s great news, because it could indicate sector-wide improvement. But the fact is that the percentage of student entries in Independent Schools Council schools gaining an A* is 17.2 per cent, which is more than twice the national average of 7.8 per cent. 

What is also not taken into account when Year 13 state and independent students are compared is the other qualifications being taken by the latter, such as pre-U and IB (of which more than a third gained 39 points or more). 

Massively overrepresented? 

You could argue that this is all very well, but what about universities? Surely independent-school students are massively overrepresented at Oxbridge? The reality is that the proportion of state-school pupils getting into these universities has risen relative to independent schools, but their actual number has fallen (1,464 to Oxford in 2013, 1,431 in 2017) because Oxford and Cambridge have not expanded when compared with other universities. It is a peculiar stranglehold that independent schools have over Oxbridge when 64 per cent of students accepted by Cambridge University came from state schools. 

By most measures, independent schools remain among the most academically successful in the country. In the Sunday Times Parent Power tables of 2018, nine of the top 10 schools were independent; 19 of the top 20 were independent; and 42 out of the top 50 were independent. Of the top 100 schools by A-level points entry, 82 were independent. Many of those are highly selective, but even more add considerable value to their student outcomes. And selection exists in the state sector

There are those on the left who want to abolish independent schools, but they have no idea how much that would cost, or even if it’s legal. Even so, I can understand their position, and it’s been consistent for many years. 

It is more difficult to understand the "useful idiots" who essentially accept the unfounded claims without asking for further evidence, or who are afraid of not appearing woke enough if they don’t condemn every perceived outpost of privilege.

That craven and self-satisfied acceptance, wrapped up so often in smugness and sanctimony, could be the biggest threat to independent schools yet. But, as we know, it’s an attitude of mind that is currently infecting much public discourse. It should be rejected.

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School, an independent school in Dorset

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