Stop the sneering. Private schools are a boon to Britain

In an opinion piece for the The Times, 29/09/14, Richard Harman, Chairman of HMC and Headmaster of Uppingham School argues it is time to stop scapegoating independent schools — to stop using them as lazy shorthand for the social ills of our country and to move beyond resentment.

It is time to stop scapegoating independent schools — to stop using them as lazy shorthand for the social ills of our country and to move beyond resentment.

One reason Britain has some of the best schools in the world is our insistence on a liberal, holistic education for children; we are not interested in narrow, sterile performance measures. Yet our pupils go on to do well in university entrance and progress to stimulating, challenging jobs — even becoming members of the cabinet. Michael Gove did, after all, despite his dismay at the company in which he found himself. We are a crucial academic resource, educating young people who take full advantage of academic opportunities and give back to society and the economy throughout their working lives.

Contrary to idle stereotypes, we are not all cut from one kind of cloth. British independent schools are now more ethnically diverse than their state-maintained counterparts. That may come as a surprise. What also marks us out is that we are genuinely independent and not a drain on the public purse. We provide one job in every 100 across the country.

As for social mobility, independent schools are part of the solution, not the root of the problem. We are not a laboratory for social engineering. Attacking the excellence of the education we provide will not help solve society’s ills. Education is part of the answer, but economic, family and social policy matter too. Making the type of school you attend a proxy for advantage, as Alan Milburn regularly does, just won’t cut it. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) schools provide £365 million annually in financial support to their pupils — a million pounds a day and rising. Sir Michael Wilshaw sneeringly described this as “crumbs” from the rich man’s table.

Many who attack the independent sector have themselves benefited from it. Many do not like to admit they send their children to our schools. Too often, those in power are embarrassed to be seen to be talking to us. They prefer publicly to threaten us with loss of charitable status or more state control instead of recognising that we can help to solve their concerns.

So I appeal to policymakers to change their tone. We demonstrate excellence, we make a positive difference and we care.

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