Dr Malcolm James and his team fired the latest salvo around the moral purpose of independent schools at the conference of the British Sociological Association a few weeks ago.
Presenting his research, Dr James argued that private schools are virtue signalling and obscuring how little they spend on scholarships. He also alleged they were spending money on facilities instead; that most scholarships were small awards rather than full bursaries and that what he called “ingenious accounting” was at work (the research team is from the accounting and finance department of Cardiff Metropolitan University)
Many of the underpinning arguments here are old and well worn, but the novelty arises from an accounting department presenting data. As ever, data makes it seem the case is more persuasive and more correct than any abstract principled dialogue about the nature and purpose of independent education. This makes it well worthwhile to pause for thought and assess the claims made.
“Schools are not virtue signalling: they are living the values that they have had for centuries, long before the state decided universal education was important.”
The simple fact is most independent schools wish to provide access to as diverse a range of society as they can, whilst being fee-charging schools. The removal of direct grant and then assisted places was not something these schools campaigned for. It was a political decision made to explicitly separate many more schools from the state sector than had even been the case before.
This was a political mistake that we have spent nearly half a century digesting. To retain their identity these schools had to become independent. As a response to the removal of those links, they began to address the question of being inclusive. There are only two ways of making a fee-paying school accessible to as wide a range of pupils as possible.
One is to control fee rises, so that the school remains generally affordable to as many as possible. The other is to provide support for fees to certain pupils whose families could not otherwise afford the fees. In pursuing these aims schools are not virtue signalling: they are living the values that they have had, in many cases, for centuries and long before the state decided universal education was important.
Language is important. Some schools have scholarships and some of those (many less than used to be the case) are not means tested – they might be for sport, music, or academic excellence. These are usually small and can often be about marketing a school that, after all, has to charge fees. That is also why schools invest in facilities.
“It is about those that have been helped by a ladder of social mobility in their lives making sure the ladder is in good repair for the next generation.”
Bursaries are a different beast entirely – means tested, often awarded for academic potential rather than current academic ability and aimed at making a school accessible rather than a marketing initiative. Schools afford bursaries in a number of ways. Some are from the schools financial model: essentially cross subsidy from fees from other parents, investing in talented young people who will make a vibrant school for their own child to grow up in. In some, that financial model will be marginally discounted places in school classes that are not full, or that have been designed into a financial model. I presume this is what is meant by “ingenious accounting”.
However, most will be funded by income from endowed bursary funds that are not the result of bequests from times gone by that have been handed down but by the hard earned cash of alumni who have been inspired to invest in someone else’s future at their old school by making a donation. The giving is philanthropic, it has wider society in mind and it is not the passing on of privilege. It is about those that have been helped by a ladder of social mobility in their lives making sure the ladder is in good repair for the next generation. For me, this is a virtue worth signalling.
“Who can say that a full bursary is more ‘transformative’ for either the individual or the society in which they will take their place, than a smaller bursary where parents can contribute?”
Finally, there is the focus on only full bursaries being transformative. I disagree. The aim of a school should be to be representative of its catchment area. That involves making the school accessible to those who can afford nothing and need a full bursary but just as much it means making is accessible to those who can afford some or most of the fees and giving a helping hand. Who can say that a full bursary is more “transformative” for either the individual or the society in which they will take their place, than a smaller bursary where parents can contribute? Now this focus on the need to support only those who need full bursaries could well be virtue signalling, not by the schools, but by the researchers.