Why choose an independent school? Part 3: The vital importance of the co-curricular programme

Independent School Parent brings you highlights from speakers at its seminar at The Sunday Times Festival of Education on 'Why choose an independent school'. Here Ben Vessey discusses the vital importance of the co-curricular programme.

As we are all aware from the many headlines on the topic, success in the 2012 London Olympics revealed some interesting statistics.

37% of medal winners were privately educated, whereas only 7% of children nationally are in the private sector.

Statistics provoked a political storm. The Prime Minister, government ministers and opposition leaders rapidly made loud noises about the need to change things, revise policy and increase standards of school sport and physical education provision. However, progress has been slow!


Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton Trust, announced ‘While we congratulate all our Olympic winners, research shows that independent school students are more than five times over-represented amongst our medal winners relative to their proportion in the population’

If one were to look at other arenas beyond sport such as music, drama and a whole range of intellectual co-curricular disciplines, all of which instil crucial life skills and passions, I suspect the picture would be similar

Sir Peter goes on to state that access to leading universities and the professions mirror the Olympic medal statistics in relation to the proportion of people who are privately educated - 35% of MPs, 54% of leading journalists and 70% of judges are figures cited in other Sutton Trust studies.

Co-curricular experiences

In many instances skills developed through co-curricular experiences will have made a vital contribution to this career success alongside simple academic performance.

I believe the use of the term co-curricular and not extra-curricular is important and I make this quite deliberate as these wider experiences are an essential half of the educational whole and are not an ‘extra’. Ideally such co-curricular opportunities would be open to all young people through their schools.

At this year’s Brighton Conference both Andrew Adonis and Michael Gove acknowledged how crucial the co-curricular experiences are and the fact the independent schools set the gold standard in this vital element of every young person’s education. They also recognised that such programmes are very limited in many state schools and this needed addressing but words and plans don’t necessarily lead to investment and action.

Independent schools are providing such programmes right now and superbly well with obvious results, and with a major impact on the lives of the young people they nurture whether at junior or senior school level Academically, independent schools lead the way. Many are selective but many are not and yet they produce superb academic results year on year. And by that I don’t simply refer to the A*-A figures but also the value added for pupils who achieve Bs and Cs.

Exam results and league tables

Exam results and league tables are a feature of our existence. We do not have to be led by them by we do have to respond to them.

Exam data scrutinised by parents and impacts on our balance sheets as much as performance in competitions such as the Olympics does for the funding made available to various sports. Important as the syllabus driven academic side of life is more often than not true, inspiration and success emerges in large part from the broader based educational experiences which are found in the co-curricular programme, whether these are primarily intellectual or otherwise.

In independent schools such programmes provide opportunities for excellence, as evidenced by the Olympic medal statistics, but also opportunities for every pupil to unearth their passions and wider potential in a huge range of areas, which develop crucial life skills.

Employers value co-curricular activities

A survey by the United Learning Trust is worth a look. It shows the high value placed by employers on Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, community service, World Challenge, Model United Nations, CCF, debating and so on. It lists a whole range of activities which are seen as highly valued in developing those key life skills and passions and all feature very highly in independent school co-curricular programmes.

As you all know young people need a range of varied and challenging choices at all stages of their education.  

  • When they leave school, seeking a good university degree from a good university is absolutely right for some.

  • However not right for all and other avenues need to be opened up which will play to the strengths of those young people for whom university may not be the right route at 18 or 19.

Employers need to play a part in the educational process too.

  • They need to define more clearly what they want and help to provide the training and skills they require and which young people will value too. Many employers are already doing this

  • Recent Santander survey – 80% of employers would rather hire school leavers with 3 years work experience than graduates

  • Accountancy and law firms, Easy Jet, GSK, Rolls Royce, JVC, ARUP Construction – Olympic Park, Goldman Sachs are all examples of providers of such schemes Such schemes are excellent but this needs expansion and these schemes need to be run properly providing meaningful experience, income and an accredited qualification at the end.

Expand your horizons

Parents and young people need to be prepared to look at and take seriously such options beyond the narrow channel of school- university-job. This route is not for all. Many young people are already making this decision due to tuition fees and the current economic and job climate but it should be a valued choice rather than a necessity and the soft skills acquired through exposure to a high quality co-curricular education will enhance their prospects when making this choice.

To win gold and achieve success in life no matter what form that might take, and whatever educational and career route is followed, demands that the experiences and skills a young person is exposed to must be wide, varied and challenging. A rich academic education is important, yes, but the co-curricular element is just as vital.

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