Theresa May should fund private schools to take on poor students

3 August 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Telegraph, 03.08.16, HMC member Shaun Fenton, Head of leading independent Reigate Grammar School on why post-Brexit the UK should recognise its strengths and promote independent schools whilst making them accessible to even more young people.

In the UK, we excel at self-deprecation. We wish things were better, fairer and more efficient. However, post-Brexit, our world standing and prosperity also relies upon us recognising and expanding our strengths.

Just as we promote our history, our cultural heritage, our countryside, the City of London, Cambridge's Silicon Valley – to name a few - we should also promote our independent schools. We must get behind all that’s great in Britain, including independent sector schools, and ensure that they’re accessible to even more young people.

You may recently have read about a 'crisis' in the independent schools sector. Let’s be clear: there are more pupils in independent schools than ever before.

Those schools have an unbeatable track record on exam results. Last year, research by Cambridge Assessment found that independent sector pupils were four times more likely to achieve an A* at A-level than pupils from state schools.

Our students also achieve disproportionate success at university entry.  In 2014, the Government published figures showing that independently educated children were two and a half times more likely to gain a degree from a Russel Group university.

And after decades of efforts to redress the imbalance, the 6.5 per cent of children educated in independent schools still claimed over 40 per cent of Oxbridge places.

Board rooms and the professions are still dominated by independent school alumnae. A Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report showed that 43 per cent of barristers, 54 per cent of chief executives, 51 per cent of top medics and 54 per cent of leading journalists attended independent schools.

And let’s cheer on Team GB athletes heading off to Rio.  At the last Olympics, 41 per cent of UK medallists were from independent schools.

Is politics no longer dominated by the independent sector? Oops, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went to a fee-paying prep school and Theresa May went to a private convent school before moving on to grammar school.

Mrs May's Government has been acclaimed for representing a triumph for state education, but some 30 per cent of the Cabinet were educated in the independent sector. If we are still allowed some French, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

All the indicators say the same thing. Firstly, the future is bright for independent schools. Secondly, and importantly for our country, we should support these beacons of excellence and increase access for children whose life chances would be transformed by being educated in one.

Some of the best schools are state schools but, despite the Government’s reforms, there are not enough places in excellent schools to go around.

Remember, though, independent schools already have significant bursary schemes, and 40 per cent of independent school pupils have parents who did not attend an independent school. In fact, these schools are also more ethnically diverse than state schools, with 29 per cent of pupils from a minority ethnic background.

Mrs May must walk a perilous tightrope of our times if she is truly to give us a country that “works for the many and not the few”.  How will she achieve it?

We should increase social mobility by using state funding to open access to independent schools

We could destroy opportunities so all are destined for the doldrums (resulting in a brain drain). Alternatively, she could create opportunities in education, and that means expanding great schools.

We should increase social mobility by using state funding to open access to independent schools. Independent schools should be challenged to educate even more disadvantaged young people.

Is it prohibitively expensive for the tax payer? Not at all. State funding of places at independent schools would be the same as for a place at a maintained school. Independent schools must fund the rest – from alumni, fundraising, and the like.

This is not a return to the old Assisted Places scheme which was criticised for benefitting the sharp-elbowed middle classes and required the state to pay full fees . My proposition is that the partial state funding should be for those who qualify for the Pupil Premium.

Independent schools should also be expected to engage further in partnerships with state schools. Ninety nine per cent of HMC schools already work with state schools, but there is room for expansion.

Independent schools will only ever be the smaller part of the educational jigsaw, but we can work together, learn from one other and improve education for all.

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