Britain’s independent schools are something that we ought to celebrate (Sunday Telegraph editorial view, 17/02/13,). Their reputation for excellence spans the globe. Yet, as we report today, headmasters are sick and tired of their schools being demonised both by elements of the political class and in society at large. Tim Hands, the incoming chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, tells The Sunday Telegraph: “There is a tendency for Joe Public to think about independent schools with a 'them and us’ mentality in which independent schools represent toffs and are therefore to be tilted at.”
His comments echo those of Frances King, headmistress of Roedean, who revealed in January that she was stepping down from her job, saying she was frustrated with always being “on the negative side of public opinion”. Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College in Berkshire, has spoken of a “suppressed hatred” in parts of society towards former public-school pupils.
This so-called “posh prejudice” has not been helped by politicians. If anything, they have encouraged it. We are used to seeing the Left attack private schools, despite many Labour MPs having benefited from them. Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell were all privately educated, and the socialist firebrand Diane Abbott once said that the private school she sent her son to was “the making of him”.
But what is staggering, and disappointing, is the Coalition’s failure to show moral support. Mr Hands says that, despite being theoretically committed to choice in education, the Government has sent mixed messages to the independent sector and failed to let it “know where it stands”. When he spoke at the Conservative Party conference in 2012, the Eton-educated David Cameron mentioned that he went to a “great school” but declined to name it. At least Mr Cameron’s overly cautious choice of language is preferable to the opportunism of the Westminster-educated Nick Clegg. In a speech last year, Mr Clegg suggested that the superior achievement of private schools was somehow “corrosive” to society – only to indicate recently in a radio interview that he would happily send his own child to one if his wife decided on it. “I want my child to have the best possible education,” he told callers. “It’s the most fundamental instinct anyone has.”
Mr Clegg is absolutely right in his assessment of human nature. But how can wanting the best for your child be a “fundamental instinct” one minute and yet “corrosive” the next? Not for the first time can the Deputy Prime Minister be accused of a convenient U-turn.
Politicians on both sides of the divide seem almost paranoid about speaking the truth, which is that the financial autonomy of the independent sector has made it into a beacon of excellence. Its academic results are superb – last summer, almost a third of privately educated teenagers gained straight A grades at A-level – and its contribution to Britain’s culture profound (more than a third of British medal winners in the 2012 London Olympics were from private schools). Many independent schools engage with their local communities and next year Eton will sponsor a non-fee-paying school. Far from being the preserve of “toffs”, many also provide financial support for poorer pupils; in 2012 one third of Oxford University’s bursaries to undergraduates from low-income backgrounds were distributed to students from independent schools. Some parents make huge financial sacrifices to send their children to a private school.
There is nothing elitist about parents following their “fundamental instincts” and trying to get the best education for their child. A survey conducted last year found that 57 per cent of the public would send their child to a private school if they could afford it. This is not necessarily a judgment on the state sector, which continues to see exam results improve. Rather, it is an endorsement of the high quality of private schools, their small class sizes and their emphasis on building confidence in young people. Rather than ignoring or disparaging these great British institutions, politicians should hold them up as an example to learn from. Especially if the politicians in question happen to have attended one.
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