One of the uncomfortable truths about the pandemic was that independent schools were able to deliver a better education than state schools.
It wasn’t through want of trying on the part of state institutions, but tales kept filtering through of councils or academies tying themselves in knots over how to move to online teaching on antiquated digital platforms.
Coupled with very real issues faced by many schools around vulnerable children, this led to an overall response which, quite frankly, showed that prior investment in schools pays off.
Independent schools across the UK have since reported an uptick in applications, as parents decide that they have to move at least one of their children to an independent school in order to make up for the learning they lost during lockdowns.
“The voices are loud and persistent – where parents can afford to do so, they are voting with their feet.”
While still anecdotal, the voices are loud and persistent – where parents can afford to do so, they are voting with their feet. Parents want to choose schools where their children have the best chance of thriving academically.
So it was perplexing to hear reports in the press this week of comments by Dorothy Byrne, the new president of Murray Edwards College in Cambridge, who she said that the demographic of the student body at Cambridge should reflect the demographic of the UK, where over 90 per cent of school students attend state schools.
Please note, the 93 per cent quoted in her comments is an average and the proportion of students in independent schools typically rises in the sixth form.
She made good points, of course, about the breadth of great universities in the UK and implicit in what she said was the importance of encouraging young people from every background to stretch their intellectual capacity. This is absolutely right – in our society we do not want adversity to stand in the way of achievement.
But to hint, however, at a quota of some kind (even though she clarified on Twitter that she was not suggesting quotas) is a path fraught with danger. It did make for good headlines and publicity, though, as Ms Byrne would know, with her background in the media.
“Independent schools are not an automatic pass to Oxbridge – nor should they be.”
It is popular to demonise independent schools, and this simply has to stop. A pernicious myth persists that independent schools are solely for the rich and entitled. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you will find enormous numbers of decent, normal parents working incredibly hard and forgoing luxuries. They simply want to try to give their children the best education they can afford, because they believe – as surely we want them to – in the transformative power of education for life and career.
Independent schools are not an automatic pass to Oxbridge – nor should they be. Oxbridge colleges are looking for “bright” young people (a word used on the Murray Edwards website) – young people who are academically curious, passionate about delving down into the intellectual depths of subjects about which they are passionate. They are the researchers and thinkers of the future, but do not represent the totality of excellence in society.
“It is popular to demonise independent schools, and this simply has to stop.”
Part of the myth that surrounds independent schools – fed still, unfortunately, it must be said, to some extent by the schools themselves in the past – is that they are a magic ticket to Oxbridge. But Oxford and Cambridge (and other top universities) collude equally in this myth by positioning themselves bluntly as “the best”, rather than as the unique and distinctive places of intellectual development that they are.
In fact, independent schools are varied and extraordinary in many different respects; if they are an easier route to top universities, this has as much to do with the encouragement of parents for their children to commit to study and learning. It may be controversial to say so, but there are many good and valid reasons why students from independent schools should be more represented in a typical student body at Oxford or Cambridge than the national average suggests.
“The independent sector is far broader than two historic boys’ schools whose students could not attend the all-women’s Murray Edwards College anyway.”
When Dorothy Byrne uses Eton and Harrow as examples of the sector, she feeds this old-fashioned and unhelpful myth too. The independent sector is far, far broader than two historic boys’ schools … whose students would not be eligible to attend the all-women’s Murray Edwards College anyway. We need to move on, and embrace the tremendous benefits of the independent schools’ sector for society as a whole.
I am being a little unfair – our soundbite culture has much to answer for in respect of the dumbing down of messages, and I do know how frustrated both Oxford and Cambridge often are at how they are misrepresented in the press. And maybe this misrepresentation was at play in the reporting on Dorothy Byrne’s comments. I can only hope so.