I want to offer children the same chance I had: independent schooling for free

5 June 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

In a blog for the Sunday Times, 05.06.16, HMC member John Claughton, Chief Master of leading independent of King Edward's School, Birmingham, on why he is "sick to death [of the claim] all independent schools were bastions of privilege that gave the rich an unfair advantage" with one in eight of the boys at his school paying no fees at all.

In September 1967, I caught the bus for the first time from Guiseley to Bradford Grammar School, the proud owner of a governors’ scholarship and some long-knee socks with a pink band — my house colour. In 1967, Bradford grammar wasn’t an independent or public school; it was a direct grant school. I didn’t understand the term but it turned out that it meant lots of bright boys could go to a wonderful school for free.

Four terms later, my family did the unthinkable and left Yorkshire for Birmingham, so I passed from one great direct grant school to another: King Edward’s School, Birmingham. And so did my elder brother. My word, we were lucky. In those years King Edward’s School was the best there was: 80% of us were there for free and almost all of us were the children of parents who had never got close to a university education, but in some years half of us got into Oxford or Cambridge. My contemporaries and I may just have been the most fortunate people ever born on this planet and I believe we would all say that King Edward’s School was the most important factor in our lives.

My parents weren’t poor and they were clever, especially my mum, but they both left school at 16. For my brother and I, things were different. The very nature and culture and company of King Edward’s School made it obvious to me that by the age of 14 I should try for Oxford. So I did and, following four years there, I played cricket (badly) — for a year and was a merchant banker (very badly) for two, before I became a teacher: two years at Bradfield College, 17 at Eton College, four years as head of Solihull School and now a decade as chief master of King Edward’s School.

When I first got on that bus in Guiseley, schools like BGS and KES or Manchester Grammar School would have been seen as great institutions of their cities: Royal Roads to a better life, great steam engines of social mobility. These days they seem to have become the enemy: independent, private, divisive, creaming off the best pupils from state schools and lumped in with institutions full of the tail-coated offspring of oligarchs who can afford £20,000 a year for a day school, £35,000 for a boarding.

As the beneficiary of a free education, as a teacher and as a head, steeped in the culture of independent schools for more than 30 years, I am deeply saddened by the simplistic, adversarial, binary and indeed ignorant ways in which the independent sector is portrayed.

Alan Bennett said last year that it wasn’t fair that independent schools should be open only to those who can afford the fees. I quite agree. After all, whatever anyone says about us, we don’t get criticised for the quality of our education, or our facilities, or the performance of our alumni, and I don’t know of another independent school head who would disagree. That’s why so many are doing all they can to open up their schools.

What does that mean? It means that at King Edward’s we spend £2m a year on assisted places. This very week we completed a campaign to raise £10m, mainly from alumni, to provide assisted places for 100 boys. Out of a pupil population of 850, 100 boys are here for free and the same again get substantially reduced fees. If you count academic scholarships, a third of the boys don’t pay full fees. This social diversity creates ethnic diversity: we are more than 60% Asian and 20% Muslim. My school teaches the sons of taxi drivers and Vietnamese boat people and Afghan refugees. In addition, we have a massive outreach programme dealing with 192 junior schools and raising aspirations in a great variety of ways.

This isn’t tokenism or fear of the four horsemen of the Charities Commission. Lots of schools are doing the same thing because we want to offer children a similar opportunity to the one that changed my life. Indeed, what we’d like to do most of all is work with the government to enhance what we do, as in the good old days of the direct grant system.

Of course, that’s too sensible to happen. In the meantime, I am sick of journalists writing as if all independent schools were the same: bastions of privilege that gave the rich and thick an unfair advantage. The boys of King Edward’s will do great things for their city and for this county — but not because their school is giving them an unfair advantage. It is giving them a chance.

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