Summer 1976: England cricketer and fellow Yorkshireman Brian Close batted famously on foreign soil (Old Trafford!) against a brutal West Indian pace attack. Ball after ball. Blow after blow. Brian played on. I know the parallels might seem a bit thin, but I find myself identifying with this image currently. Summer 2016 and bouncers arrow in at independent schools in what continues to be an oddly hostile year. Bradford Grammar takes guard and bats on in the middle of the latest salvo (a beamer this time) from another unlikely member of the anti-independent bandwagon.
“Companies should ask job applicants whether they went to private school in a bid to stop discrimination against the poor, a minister said today” – The Telegraph.
The minister in question was Matt Handcock, former pupil at the Kings (independent) School in Chester. Predictably, as is the case with so many of these articles, Bafta award success for the independently educated was once again used as a stick to beat us with. (How many other quarters of UK life are criticised for being successful and contributing so positively to society?). Regardless, I smiled when the article closed with Matt Handcock’s parting shot in which he vowed to “enter those no-go zones where politicians don’t dare to venture”. Honestly Matt, get in line please if you intend to stay in the Westminster anti-independent camp. It would appear that any low blow directed at our schools will these days provide the necessary career enhancing headlines for an ambitious politician.
The nub of this latest criticism is the hackneyed stereotype of private vs state schools and the use of school type as a proxy for social advantage. Here we go again. Perhaps it’s time to take a stride down the wicket and play a few shots in reply.
Secondary education in Britain today is bewilderingly diverse. As a former Head of Sixth Form I know that UCAS has long since abandoned any misleading binary categorisation of UK schools and instead, recognises seven school types. But even this model lacks the resolution to accommodate the true complexity and subtlety in our nation’s many varied schools the evolution of which, if mapped out, would resemble something akin to the rock family tree of heavy metal royalty Deep Purple (nod to a previous blog). Schools are organised and funded in a multitude of ways. Similarly, selectivity is not synonymous with the payment of school fees and some maintained schools are far more selective than their independent neighbours. In this complex landscape – and I’ll get onto the diversity within independent schools in a moment – it is simply nonsensical and gimmicky to characterise one type of educational background as providing a particular form of social advantage over another. It’s unsophisticated, it’s plain wrong. Individual schools serve their pupils in different ways and are sensitive to local contexts.
The motives of those in Government who work to address Britain’s worrying lack of intergenerational mobility or widening pay gap between the highest and lowest earners are laudable. But at what point will policy makers pause, take stock and reflect on decades of educational reform that have failed to make a positive impact on these fronts? It is widely accepted that residential segregation, family structure, income inequality, social capital and schooling can act as blockers of increased social mobility. And yet successive governments have fixated on the latter of these variables at the expense of a connected and concerted strategy across a broader front. And that focus has become increasingly specific of late with crosshairs locked on UK independent schools.
Matt Handcock suggested that “social justice is at the heart of everything this one nation government is trying to achieve. Our goal is simple: to make sure everyone has the opportunity to succeed and make the most of their talents, whatever the circumstances of their birth”. I agree. But independent schools are not the issue. They can and do help to achieve this aspiration.
The Independent Schools Council (ISC) 2016 census indicated that more than £850m was provided in fee assistance by association schools, an increase of 2.6 per cent on last year. £400m of this related to means-tested assistance (bursaries), up 9 percent on last year. Similarly, the proportion of minority ethnic pupils has increased to reflect general population trends up from 29 to 30 percent this year. The long and short of it is that independent schools are more inclusive, accessible and diverse than the media would have anyone believe.
The data are reliable and show that 7 percent of all pupils attend an independent school at some point in their career. Ivory towers? I don’t think so. Moreover, 40 per cent of our pupils have parents who did not themselves go to an independent school, this is not about the perpetuation of a small elite. Our schools are a path to social mobility and yet the lazy logic of tired journalism and the soundbites of keen to be noticed Westminster-types persist.
Independent schools serve their pupils and families very well indeed and do great good in their communities, and on the national and international stage too (for example, 1,112 ISC schools work in partnership with ‘state’ schools, 39 more than last year, 799 provide volunteering opportunities and in excess of £10m was raised for charities).
So how in the grand scheme of things will discriminatory questions fired at anxious interviewees about their parent’s choice of school make Britain better? Is this helpful or even fair? It just isn’t cricket.
“The Independent Schools Council (ISC) 2016 census indicated that more than £850m was provided in fee assistance by association schools, an increase of 2.6 per cent on last year. £400m of this related to means-tested assistance (bursaries), up 9 percent on last year. Similarly, the proportion of minority ethnic pupils has increased to reflect general population trends up from 29 to 30 percent this year. The long and short of it is that independent schools are more inclusive, accessible and diverse than the media would have anyone believe.”