Not such a posh privilege?

In the Summer Senior edition of Independent School Parent Magazine, HMC Chairman and High Master of The Manchester Grammar School, Dr Chris Ray writes on the subject of Independent Schools and wealth.

The view that only the rich send their children to fee-paying schools is at best simply a disingenuous myth, but at worst a politically motivated fabrication.  Many children in independent schools are there because their families make considerable financial sacrifices.  Many other children attend fee-paying schools because their extended families – aunts, uncles, grandparents – pick up the bill.  And yet other children are educated in such schools because the schools themselves provide the cash.

At The Manchester Grammar School, some 250 pupils (out of 1500 in the School) receive means-tested remission on fees – and the majority of their families are given 100% remission.  There are very many other independent schools which provide significant means-tested bursaries for the children of poorer families.  In 2012, Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) schools alone provided well over £50 million in means-tested assistance to poorer families and Independent Schools Council (ISC) schools provided nearly 40,000 means-tested bursaries.  However, some do worry about the even greater amounts spent on school buildings and facilities which, whilst providing magnificent resources for independent schools, do perhaps make it more difficult for some families to afford the consequent increased costs.

Yes, in the independent sector there are children of some seriously wealthy parents.  Perhaps this is not surprising with over 250,000 millionaires in the UK and many of these choosing to send their children to fee-paying schools.   However, there are over 500,000 children in independent schools.  Therefore we should not discount the possibility that there may be at least as many children of wealthy families educated in the state sector as in the independent sector. 

Yet there are several points which should be noted:

  1. During the last ten years, fees have increased in the independent day sector by over 50%.
  2. According to the Independent Schools Council, the average fee in the day sector is over £11,700.
  3. The average boarding fee is over £26,000.
  4. There is a great degree of regional variation: day fee levels in London and the South East are far greater than in many other parts of the country: an education in London will cost parents at least 50% more than in the North.

So, there is no doubt that an independent education is a serious financial commitment and especially so when more than one child per family is involved and you live in or near London.

When a moderate-income family decides upon an independent education for their child it might be represented with some justification as an act of financial insanity.  Not only are substantial taxes paid to cover the overall cost of state-maintained education, school fees increase the burden tremendously.  There are some, like Andrew Adonis, who would add further to the cost, arguing that independent schools should devote part of their fee income to support for under-performing state schools through sponsorship for the academy programme.  A few years ago, the Charity Commission demanded that in order to justify their charitable status much more should be spent by independent school on means-tested bursaries: and this ‘threat’ may return.

Yet the benefits of an independent education can be immense.  The best schools in the sector focus not simply upon the achievement of excellent academic results, they also help to prepare children for their future careers and lives as citizens.  Although some fear that the supposed negative attitudes of universities might remove the icing from this particular cake, there is no real evidence to suggest that there is any discriminatory bias against those educated in independent schools: this point was made forcefully at the HMC Conference in Belfast last October by the Chief executive of UCAS, Mary Curnock Cook.

There are some of us who dream that one day the quality of education provided in the independent sector will be freely available and indeed free to all. 

Although there are a few independent schools which have joined the state-maintained sector as academies, the number involved is indeed small – despite the hyperbole in the media when the odd school accepts the Queen’s shilling.  And most of us value our independence far too much to lose it.  For independence brings a genuine freedom to decide in consultation with our parents what is best and is right for the children in our care without fear of (for example) any retribution for failing to meet the bogus and often absurd targets set for state schools.

So I continue to dream of the day when government will remove itself from the educational arena so that our schools may be genuinely free in every sense.