Independent education is not in crisis

Northern Echo, 24.02.16, with parents seeking small class sizes and a nurturing, family environment, size is everything when it comes private schools, but their commitment to keeping rolls low seems to be at odds with economics. HMC member Alan Stevens headmaster of leading independent Barnard Castle School explains why private education at leading independent schools still has a future.

With parents seeking small class sizes and a nurturing, family environment, size is everything when it comes private schools, but their commitment to keeping rolls low seems to be at odds with economics.

Alan Stevens, headmaster at Barnard Castle School, in County Durham, says private education still has a future.

"There are many reasons why I am confident that parents will continue to choose the private sector," he says. "Our children leave us with confidence and a wealth of experiences that the state sector simply cannot provide.

"Our deputy head saw this at first hand on a school trip to Iceland last year when comparing the broad range of experiences our children enjoyed with those from a state school on the same trip. We run one of the biggest school Combined Cadet Forces, the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and overseas sports tours, expeditions and educational residentials every year.

"I know that some state schools have restricted excursions because staff feel the work involved is onerous, but we maintain a full programme of educational and adventure visits from our youngest pupils in Pre-Prep to our sixth form."

For the private sector, affordability remains the biggest challenge, even post-recession, although comments by some head teachers in the south that boarding schools risk being turned into "finishing schools for the children of oligarchs" is way off the mark in the north where local families remain as the majority and overseas and military families take up the remaining places.

The North East has some outstanding state schools achieving remarkable results - selective Ripon Grammar School, one of the country's few state boarding schools, and non-selective Emmanuel College, Gateshead, and Carmel College, in Darlington to name a few.

But Mr Stevens says: "Our parents have made a conscious decision to go private. Independent education isn't cheap, but it represents choice and a worthwhile investment for many families. A minority may fall into the 'wealthy' category but most are 'ordinary' families who make sacrifices to send their children to Barney.

Our parents have made a conscious decision to go private. Independent education isn't cheap, but it represents choice and a worthwhile investment for many families. A minority may fall into the 'wealthy' category but most are 'ordinary' families who make sacrifices to send their children to Barney.

Alan Stevens, Headmaster, Barnard Castle School

"We strive to offer the best value for money, and to be as accessible and affordable as we can be, offering a generous means-tested bursary scheme. Our fees are among the lowest in the sector but still many families choose to live in modest homes and forego family holidays or a new car to fund their child's education."

That's not to say the state sector isn't under pressure too, of course, with significant cuts to budgets and Ofsted's imposing ever-increasing demands in performance. Meanwhile, a list of Department for Education favourite sponsors are poised ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble.

Despite the gloom, there are some shining lights in the private sector, schools that are not only full but also investing significantly in facilities, such as the new purpose-built sixth form centre at Barnard Castle.

"Independent schools do a good job for children, the country and the region," explains Mr Stevens. "The investment parents make in their children's education here goes back into the local economy through staff salaries and a whole host of supplier contracts, from transport to uniform, catering to gardening. We also attract investment from overseas through our international students.

"If you are a senior executive of one of the global corporations that has invested in the North-East but can't find the private school you want in the region, you will simply spend your money to board your children elsewhere. In the worst cases it might put those executives off coming here at all. Whatever your views on independent education, that is not good news for the region.

"Looking ahead we want our children to return after completing degrees at university to build their careers or to start businesses here."

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