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Independent schools: a force for good or a blight on our society?

Independent schools: a force for good or a blight on our society? featured image

I may be over-sensitive, but it seems that the media and the political classes are engaging in a concerted effort to undermine independent education. In recent weeks, I have read several articles in the national press and listened to debates on both radio and television about whether independent schools are somehow ‘immoral’. There is certainly a feeling in journalistic circles that we are an impediment to social mobility. It’s hardly surprising therefore that those of us who are focused on the complex daily task of providing the best possible academic and all-round education for almost 1000 boys, might feel persecuted. We are only trying to do a good job!

Some politicians who are (rightly) concerned about social mobility have got excited about a new book entitled Engines of Privilege by social historian David Kynaston and economist Francis Green, which lambasts independent schools as a source of inequality in society through the advantages served up to our pupils in childhood. As a sector, we educate only 7% of school children (although this percentage doubles for students of Sixth Form age), so it is difficult, I think, to blame us for the problems encountered by the remaining 93% of schools. It strikes me that independent schools are an easy target to serve as a distraction from the real task at hand: increasing the consistency of educational quality in the maintained sector, so that all schools are as good as the best. I must admit to it being rather galling to see us criticised for being good at helping our pupils get into the best universities, and in supporting them to achieve double the proportion of As and A*s as their counterparts in maintained schools. These are the very reasons for our existence and why you chose to send your sons to us in the first place.

The phrase ‘blight on our society’ that I selected as my title comes from an interesting and balanced article I read earlier in the week on this subject. It’s the picture that accompanies this article that irritates me: a picture of Etonians watching the Eton Wall Game, with competitors clad in garish blazers. Whenever there is any article about ‘private’ schools in the press, we are treated to lazy stereotypes of Etonians and Harrovians in top hats, and stories of billionaire benefactors – a long way from the reality of an East Midlands independent day school. Of course, we are fortunate to have been able to invest in some outstanding teaching facilities and staff, giving our boys favourable conditions for learning and achieving, but the picture of uncaring privilege, opulence and other-worldliness is not one that I recognise. The Etonian trope is particularly strong at present, as the serious press seems to consider David Cameron and Boris Johnson as representatives of an out-of-touch elite with little understanding of the concerns of the UK population as a whole.

A number of politicians, from both right and left, appear to have a deep-rooted hatred for the independent schools sector. You may have read about the threat to impose VAT on school fees, made initially by Jeremy Corbyn, but mooted equally by some in Government. Similarly, the charitable status of schools, which means that we are exempt from some taxation, may be challenged in the coming years. In addition, a stealth tax is being raised on independent schools from September 2019 in the form of increased pension contributions for teachers. Maintained schools are exempt from this (at least in the short-term) but we are being forced to contribute much increased contributions with no benefit to our staff, in order to help fill a Government financial shortfall. Nobody seems to consider in conversations about financial penalties on independent schools how you, as parents, are actually paying twice for your children’s education in terms of fees to the Loughborough Schools Foundation and, funded through your taxes, a place in a local school that you have willingly forfeited.

Of course, it is important for our schools to contribute to social mobility, not least because this was the intent of our founders more than five centuries ago. We have a small bursary fund which enables boys (and girls) to attend the senior schools who would otherwise be unable to do so. In fact, we wish it were bigger, as we are conscious that there are more children out there who could benefit from our education. I am always particularly pleased when a boy who has benefitted from a bursary achieves outstanding examination results and leaves to attend one of our top institutions because it is self-evident that we have had a transformational effect on his life.

It is also important that our boys understand that they are fortunate to have the opportunities that they do. This is one of the reasons why Thursday afternoons are devoted (for Years 10-13) to service and the community. Each week over a hundred boys depart Burton Walks during Thursday lunchtime heading to local charities, old people’s homes and primary schools. In addition, boys are encouraged to think about how they can, through their charity work, support local people in need. Those of you with boys in Years 6-9 will have recently completed your returns for the summer Enrichment Days, where hundreds of our younger pupils will have the chance to do something to improve our local environment for the benefit of the community.

Although I wish that the press would get off our case and let us do the very best job we can, I acknowledge that it is important for us to be collectively a force for good in society. We have a duty to reach out to those around us, whether local schools with less favourable circumstances or community groups. What’s more, our boys benefit from this interaction, not least because they need to understand the perspectives of all in society rather than the narrower cross-section encountered in their classes. The new website contains details of our public benefit work – https://lsf.org/foundation-office/public-benefit/ – and we are always looking out for further opportunities to make a substantive difference to the lives of those around us.

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