When MPs recently debated setting up a select committee looking at reform of independent schools’ tax status, the atmosphere was pretty lively. It may have been defeated, but it is a sign of our times. The political threat to independent schools in the UK is increasingly insistent.
Of course, it is not new. I remember the debate following Blair’s abolition of Margaret Thatcher’s Assisted Places scheme in 1997. And before that, the comprehensivisation of education in the mid-60s was again cited as the beginning of the end for Britain’s independent schools.
But the sector weathered both these moments, leading many to think, it was ever thus. Indeed, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, points out that “as regular as clockwork” over the past 100 years, independent schools have been significantly challenged every three decades.
It is hard not to feel that we are heading for another such decisive moment for private education in the UK. Only this time the threat is not confined simply to political pressure. The challenges facing independent schools are unprecedented in scale and number, as the second edition of The State of Independence, published recently, makes clear.
“I assumed then that our book might be an interesting novelty, a brief conversation piece.”
My co-editor David James and I enjoyed collecting fascinating essays from the 50 plus contributors for the first edition, published by Routledge in 2019. The aim was to explore some of the challenges and opportunities confronting the sector at the time. Little did we know what was coming.
Honestly, I assumed then that our book might be an interesting novelty, a brief conversation piece of interest to industry specialists and with a few useful nuggets for heads to discuss with their governors during a fallow period.
In fact, that first edition was a best-seller, and that is, in part, because it landed at a time of growing angst and uncertainty, about the role, identity and function of private schools in our increasingly egalitarian and populist age.
But that, of course, was back in 2019. From our post-pandemic, post Brexit, post Ukraine invasion, post Trussonomics vantage point, all that now feels like some kind of quaint prophetic ripple, gently presaging the torrent of challenges surging towards our world from 2020 onwards.
For all in our society, not least those who run schools, the last three years have been entirely unprecedented in terms of crisis management and game-changing demands.
“The challenges of 2019 now feel like some kind of quaint prophetic ripple.”
In the midst of it all, of course, critical questions for the independent sector have persisted. What kind of academic provision should private schools offer? How digitally experimental should they be? How should they address the opportunities offered by innovation or by international expansion? How should they respond to issues of diversity, financial viability, political stability and gender? How can they solve the problem of access?
And these are some of the questions which State of Independence 2, with its 45 new and revised essays, seeks to address. The question of access is perhaps one of the most pressing issues. Ralph Lucas, editor-in-chief of the Good Schools Guide, points out in his essay that the recent exponential increase in fees means that whole sections of society that in the past found independent education well within reach, “now give it no more than a passing thought”.
Educational commentator Sam Freedman agrees, arguing that the sector has “priced itself into irrelevance”, with such a small minority of the population able to access it, despite the country becoming wealthier.
“The independent sector is like a nervous, self-conscious adolescent, anxious to please.”
Meanwhile, headteacher Katherine Birbalsingh and Baroness Fox both argue that the independent sector has lost its confidence, its sense of itself. Like a nervous, self-conscious adolescent, anxious to please, the sector has been seeking to shuffle off any taint of “traditionalism”, hoping to demonstrate its progressive credentials.
There is a sense in this new edition that this is a time for inquiry, for radical reflection and an opportunity for truly fresh thought from private educators. It is a time for genuinely creative and transformative thinking in the face of such comprehensive and unrelenting questioning.
Indeed, writer Will Orr-Ewing reminds us that because independent schools themselves arose out of innovation (the teaching of girls, the move to co-education, the promotion of science) private schools are well placed to respond, adventurously, to the demands of our time.
“Our schools are full of courageous staff who are prepared to think differently when they need to.”
Today’s innovation comes from interesting curriculum choices promoting the opportunities of inter-disciplinary learning. It comes from digital innovation. It comes from creative answers to diversity and partnership.
Private schools, just like all schools, are packed full of talented professionals who care and want to do the best job they can for the pastoral, academic and moral development of their pupils. They are full of courageous staff who are prepared to think differently when they need to and, most importantly, they are full of children and young people who are engaging, passionate, funny, caring and excited about the future.
Former head Patrick Derham acknowledges this. Independent schools can’t fix all society’s problems, he reminds us, but they can “enable young people to become authors of their own life stories…”
Perhaps Ceri Jones’ essay sounds the most optimistic note, saying these challenging, exciting times are a “once in a generation opportunity to think big about the future of our educational system”.
And that feels like a pretty inspiring call to arms for a new year.