Since 2002, school fees have doubled. And I cannot escape the fact that for 19 years I have been an agent in making independent education increasingly exclusive and irrelevant to growing numbers of parents.
Year on year, the ISC census reports that the number of pupils in its schools has risen. In much the same way that exam results are used to validate ministerial claims of improved education, the sector uses the pupil roll to imply constant support for independent schools.
However, the surveys show imbalances in age and place that the whole sector should be concerned about and, as importantly, they fail to quantify the rising tide of media criticism of private education or the sector’s limited influence on government policy. In the absence of authoritative analysis, I wonder whether we are drifting into the backwaters of British education?
If we are, it’s our own fault. Much has been made of the “facilities arms race,” where, apparently, schools compete to build the most impressive buildings in a bid to woo the market. That has never been my experience in the North of England, but fees still rise year on year driven by creeping operational costs arising from new developments in education.
Technology budgets have mushroomed, the curriculum has broadened, individual pupil support has burgeoned, leadership teams have grown, and administration costs have risen. All these have merit, but collectively their costs drive our fees beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest in Britain’s divided society.
“For 19 years I have been an agent in making education increasingly exclusive and irrelevant to growing numbers of parents.”
Game Theory is playing out in private education as schools act rationally to invest in their individual success, ignoring the collective impact which is steadily eroding the sector. Unsurprisingly, our strength is our greatest weakness. The independence of our schools from government funding and large tracts of policy allows us to be innovative and distinct.
However, the same characteristic hinders sector-wide planning as schools voice differing pressures, priorities and philosophies, which has made significant reform impossible from within.
If we cannot change our collective selves, then we should beware the context in which our schools will operate in the coming decades. Brexit has normalised the divided society. Politicians regularly exploit the schisms and populism which are the natural product of such a febrile social environment.
As we contemplate the impact of the pandemic and wonder about the future bequeathed to our children, the demand for a fairer, greener society is unsurprising and welcome. Where, I wonder, will we find the space to fit in? How will we play the significant role in society that our founders envisioned?
Whilst individual schools have their challenges to face, our most pressing question is where on this wave of social change will our sector lie? Left to their own devices, individual schools will reform at different rates. Sedbergh will reduce its carbon footprint by 50 per cent between 2019 and 2025 and has embarked on widening access to the local community, other schools are well ahead, and some will be behind.
“Whilst individual schools have their challenges to face, our most pressing question is where on this wave of social change will our sector lie?”
However, the greater challenge to reposition the sector in line with the changing public mood falls to the associations. Whilst much good work has been done by individuals over many years, the impact of the associations (ISC, IAPS, BSA, SoH, ISA, GSA, HMC, ISBA, AGBIS) as agents of change has been limited. There is a long list of reasons: associations place their members’ priorities ahead of whole sector interest; headteachers promote their individual agendas ahead of those of their association and media stereotypes prevail.
However, the greatest impediment is the diversity of views and inertia amongst members. I remember a short-lived attempt to introduce a common English Baccalaureate early in my membership of HMC. A speaker who advised that the “Eton Group” had endorsed the idea was swiftly followed by another who, “speaking on behalf of the Doc Martin Brigade”, dismissed the proposal roundly. Consensus on far-reaching collective change has been in short supply ever since.
“The impact of the associations as agents of change has been limited.”
The ISC has worked hard to promote the Schools Together partnership programme and promote bursary schemes as strategies to assuage government demands that we contribute to performance improvements and social mobility. Schools have invested heavily in these appeasement strategies, but little has changed since the Sutton Trust Open Access Report (2012) described them as “scratching the surface” of division.
There is no obvious exit plan, and in its absence it is inevitable that Governments will continually raise the bar and make increasing demands of our schools. Fee increases are the inevitable result. Some schools will find solutions to the political, social and financial pressures through diversification, environmental investment and community partnerships. But without a sector-wide response to the changing socio-economic landscape it is impossible to describe our collective role in improving society, the old, damaging stereotypes will persist and fees will continue to rise. New school models are already meeting the demand for lower-cost private education and will continue to erode our market.
“Without a sector-wide response the old, damaging stereotypes will persist and fees will continue to rise.”
Headteachers are the members who determine association strategy. Too many of us are too busy to engage thoughtfully with this work as we focus on the immediate challenges we face in our schools. Membership demands that we take responsibility for guiding the sector as a whole so that our schools play their proper role in society in the decades ahead.
It is high time we put aside traditional divisions of age, gender, education type and performance which define the boundaries of association membership and which are irrelevant in today’s social landscape. A single representative body would usher in a new dialogue, would offer clarity in the public space and have the merit of efficiency and greater resources. And the upheaval this would require might just be the catalyst to start the new conversations about purpose, role and cost which are well overdue.
I shall leave education in August. It has been a privilege to work with hundreds of talented colleagues and thousands of interesting pupils. I hope the world’s best liberal education will become accessible to more pupils than is currently the case and that school leaders will invest the time required to define its role in improving our divided society.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine.