Today’s report by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission rightly raises some fundamental issues about the state of play for equal opportunities in the UK. One might take issue with some of the headline assumptions, e.g. -
- school type is by no means a proxy for privilege/disadvantage
- 7% is a misleading figure given that the number of Sixth Form students (i.e. most likely to access a university education) who are privately educated is nearer 18%
- it is important not to conflate Oxbridge graduates with the (less than half) who attended private school; it’s also worth noting that many independent schools’ alumni are in receipt of means-tested bursaries at those universities (i.e. not from wealthy families)
Nevertheless, there is no doubting the general thrust of their conclusions, not least because it chimes with innumerable other studies demonstrating the stagnation of social mobility. The issue is what should be done, and here I welcome the recommendation that opening access to independent schools can form part of the solution. The OECD’s 2018 report on ‘Equity in Education’ proved that the most powerful intervention for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds was for them to attend advantaged schools, with an effect size of 77 PISA points (= 2.5 years of schooling). This means that finding a way for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend independent schools has the potential to reverse the attainment gap, as well as provide access to high quality music/sport/drama, soft skills, debating, confidence and career networks.
This is a challenge that many schools, including my own, are addressing because it is the right thing to do and true to our mission, purpose and ethos. For example, at Latymer Upper next year, 200 pupils will be in receipt of means-tested bursaries, the majority on free places. Manchester Grammar School, Bolton School (Boys and Girls), King Edward’s Birmingham, Nottingham High School, JAGS, and Christ’s Hospital take a similar view – to name but a few.
What is the alternative? Certainly not ‘phasing out’ independent schools in the interests of “social justice”. The IFS has calculated that maintained schools have experienced an 8% cut in funding in real terms since 2009, equivalent to £3.8bn; the impact of this on workload, recruitment and retention has been disastrous. Do we really want to add an additional £3.5bn of costs to this problem by abolishing independent schools? How will this ensure that the 93%, especially in the North East or coastal regions, have access to qualified Maths or Science teachers?
Like many of my colleagues, I endorse proposals to widen access to independent schools, many of whom (like Latymer) used to be free under the Direct Grant system. The Sutton Trust has proposed an ‘Open Access’ scheme, HMC has offered 10,000 free places – where is an equally constructive answer from the politicians?