The Future for Independent Schools

Last term I spoke, alongside the Headmistress of the Girls’ Division, at a meeting arranged by Labour Against Private Schools and the Private School Policy Review. They were leading up to the Labour conference and an election was in the air. Our message was that the children in our schools cannot wait for an esoteric and largely philosophical debate about the theoretical and contested ideal education system for an equally contested vision of an ideal society, but rather they need the varied and diverse educational landscape we have now to work for all children as well as it possibly can.

As the election results settle and a time for calmer deliberation emerges then it seems to me that making the systems work for all is even more important. The option of engaging in debate and deliberation about what schools should exist and which should not and why is too tempting for some, and I see that urge growing again.  My preference is to assume there may well be very little system change and that we need to press on within the domain of the possible. For me there are three strands.

The first is that independent schools must be real and relevant to their local context or, with boarding schools, their national and international purpose. This strand hinges on who is in our schools and how many people think they would like to be or can be part of that aspiration. We must be affordable and worth affording. And that means fees must be tightly controlled and schools should make reasonable fee increases a top strategic objective. At my own school that has meant keeping fee increases at 2% for the last four years. Over time this makes the choice of a fee paying place more accessible to more people, making the school more part of the society it finds itself in.

The second strand is access and bursaries. It matters who is in our schools, not just that they are full. It matters so we do reflect the society we are part of and so that the argument about choice for those who pay fees is real and also so that access for those who will never afford fees, yet would thrive in our schools, is a real prospect. 1 in 5 pupils are supported in my school, 12% on free places. This is how our schools are an engine of social mobility, so evident in our past with direct grant pupils. Of course, the Government giving us the normal state school rate to educate a portion of our pupils would enhance social mobility. But we can’t rely on that system change and so we must do it ourselves. It can often be the case that the independent school with a strong bursary programme is the most diverse in a locality, as it does not rely on religious affiliation or geographical location for its entry requirements.

Finally, there is partnership. Not everyone will afford a full fee place or be awarded a bursary but a strong and thriving independent school can still have a significant impact on the educational journey of a young person in nearby schools. Such partnerships must be purposeful, sustainable and planned to meet a real need, not an imagined one. They must be genuine partnership, with clear and evaluated aims and outcomes. And those must be focused on making the independent school an important cog in the machinery of the local educational landscape for all.

Fees, bursaries and partnership – three strands that will allow the next decade to show just what a positive impact a thriving independent school has in the diverse and varied local landscape in which young people are educated.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is the Head of Foundation of Bolton School. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists. Follow at X: @Philip_Britton | View X/Twitter archive | Listen at: Exploring Bolton School | Social Mobility, Leadership & Future School Thinking | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton