Wellington College headmaster: independent school fees must not ‘spiral out of control’

TES, 25.08.15, independent schools must not allow their fees to “spiral out of control”, because rising fees are pricing middle-class families out of private education, the incoming Master of leading independent Wellington College, HMC member Julian Thomas has warned.

Julian Thomas, who will take the helm at the £35,775-a-year Berkshire public school next week, is the second high-profile independent school headteacher to warn about the growing cost of a private education in recent months.

He told TES that his own independent schooling would not have been possible if fees been as high during his childhood as they are today.

“My own background is [that] I went to a state primary and to an independent school afterwards,” he said.

“I was able to do that through my parents doing whatever they needed to do [to afford the fees],” he said. “My dad was a printer, so he was not a high earner, but they were able to get the funds together to send me to an independent school.

“That was possible in those days [but] it wouldn’t be possible now. So I think we have a duty as a sector not to allow fees to spiral out of control,” he said.

His comments comes after Tony Little, the outgoing headmaster of Eton College, told the Boarding Schools Association’s annual conference in May that middle-income families were being “squeezed out” of boarding school education because of rising fees.

Mr Thomas said he was not planning to cut fees at Wellington College in the short term. However, speaking in his first interview since being appointed to the role, Mr Thomas said he wanted the school to become “needs-blind” so that wealth did not determine students’ ability to attend. But he added that this was a “decades-long aspiration”.

“All independent schools should do whatever they can to increase access,” he said, adding that Wellington had ended funding for scholarships and instead used the money for means-tested bursaries.

Mr Thomas succeeds Sir Anthony Seldon, the high-profile and pioneering figure who led the school for almost a decade and attracted attention by introducing well-being and mindfulness lessons for students. Mr Thomas said he wanted to continue the well-being work and said he was “excited” about Wellington College’s sponsorship of the Wellington Academy, a state secondary in Wiltshire.

The sponsorship has not always gone smoothly, however. Disappointing exam results at the academy in 2013 were quickly followed by the departure of the founding principal. But this week Mr Thomas told TES that it was “quite possible” the public school would sponsor more academies in the future.

“It’s certainly something we’re not closed to,” he said. “We want to help to be part of the solution to raising the quality of education for all children. That may include sponsoring another academy... we’ll try to engage with the state sector in ways that will be a genuine support.”

Mr Thomas acknowledged that there had been “hiccups” in the establishment of the partnership. However, he declined to comment further on this, saying it would not be right to do so because he was not involved at the time.

Read the full interview © TES