Chris King: The art of confusing parents

Sunday Times, 14.02.16, HMC Chair Chris King, headmaster of leading independent Leicester Grammar School writes: thousands of anxious parents are waiting this week to find out whether their offspring have been offered places at their preferred independent senior school. It’s already a worrying time, but this year they might be forgiven for feeling especially confused. 

Any parent within a mile of a newspaper or computer screen this week will have seen stories proclaiming a “crisis” within the independent sector. Really? No, not really. The excitement started after front-page stories reported an interview with the owner of the Good Schools Guide, Lord Lucas – a Conservative peer with a commercial organisation to run – who apparently wanted to wax lyrical about how state schools are improving at such a pace that the independent sector is at risk and parents are leaving those schools in droves.

Even after placing aide journalistic instincts for exaggeration and purple prose, this is simply not true. The highest-scoring state schools are getting better results but these are a relatively small number of mainly selective schools. In many parts of the UK, parents can’t find or get in to a high-performing school. Take just one example of the wider difficulties. A study published since last weekend by the National Audit Office revealed that despite spending £700m a year on recruiting new teachers, the government missed its targets in 14 out of 17 secondary subjects, including maths. And the latest OECD figures show UK schools languishing in the middle of international tables, with 22% of students failing to reach the level in maths where they can function fully in a modern society.

So where does that leave parents trying to work out where to educate their children?

I know many families cannot afford independent school fees (although there are more means-tested bursaries available than many realise – worth £1m per day in the schools I represent), but for those who can, the decision should be based on the facts. And the facts are that independent schools as a whole perform better than most state schools, even after social and economic factors have been taken into account. As chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, the organisation that represents the leading independent schools, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Not necessarily – and certainly not if it’s untrue. At heart I am a teacher (geography, actually) and teachers like facts. And the facts this week have been either ignored or manipulated to such a degree that any child with a C in GCSE maths would be able to spot the problems.

Fact one: there have never been more pupils in independent schools and contrary to popular opinion, this is not explained away by population growth. In Edinburgh, for example, more than 35% of schoolchildren are taught in independent schools.

Fact two: pupils in some highly selective state schools get better exam results than in some independent schools, many of which are not selective. Of course they do, and good on them. But the important thing is consistency: nearly a third of all independent school entries at GCSE are awarded A* grades, compared to 7% nationally; and half of all entries at independent schools achieve A* and A grades, nearly double the national figure.

Fact three: hardly any parents of independent school pupils are Russian oligarchs or British aristocrats of the Downton Abbey variety, yet a great deal of toff-ism and lazy stereotyping goes on. Hugo Rifkind this week described his local independent school as full of braying, après-ski-wearing parents who put him right off. He was gracious enough to admit this may reflect his own London tribe but as a general impression it is simply incorrect. At my independent school, Leicester Grammar, a third of the pupils are from ethnic minority families and many of the parents work at Leicester University. The same is true of the majority of schools around the country.

Decisions about which school a child joins should not be based on exam results. They should be about fit and feel. So if you want to find a “good school”, what advice would I give? Firstly, don’t buy a guide book that tells you what to think; instead, visit the schools whose values and approach seem right. Really good secondary schools have high-quality teachers who are innovating from a position of strength because they have top degrees from the best universities. Don’t be swayed by a school’s publications either, but feel the atmosphere within the establishment and talk to the current pupils – they will soon tell you if it’s a good school or not.

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