If private schools are keen to hang on to their charitable status, it is for reasons of reputation and prestige, not economics. The Independent Schools Council estimates the financial benefit of charitable status to be only £100m a year – just 2.4 per cent of fee income. In a sector where fees have risen by 43 per cent in five years, a 2.4 per cent one time increase would barely register.
But even if the financial imperative is not there, the moral case for private schools providing a wider public benefit is strong. These schools – where seven per cent of children are educated – have the lion’s share of the most highly qualified teachers, account for a significant proportion of entrants to our leading universities, and, as Sutton Trust research has shown, produce a majority of the country’s elites. Can it really be fair that they are closed to the 90 per cent of parents who cannot afford the fees? Are they entrenching advantage rather than acting as engines of social mobility, as many once did?
These questions have become more pressing since the abolition of the flawed Assisted Places Scheme in 1997, not least in the sector itself. As a result, Independent State School Partnerships – which we pioneered back in 1997 – have been rolled out by the government and have reached 140,000 pupils.
These collaborations may offer some exciting possibilities but the extent of the independent sector’s involvement in state education on purely altruistic terms is always going to be limited. Like any school, the first obligation of a private school is to its own pupils.
The real issue – and one politicians on both sides have shamefully side stepped for too long – is how to ensure that children whose parents cannot afford the fees have access to independent schools.
It is a common misconception that such opportunities already exist for a substantial number of these pupils. Independent schools spend 6.5 per cent of their fee income on funding students, half of which goes on scholarships. These are not means-tested, are for less than half the fees and mainly go to parents who can afford to pay anyway. That leaves a little over three per cent for bursaries, much of which goes to pupils whose families fall on hard times and to funding places for teachers’ children. So there is very little left over for other youngsters who need either all or a substantial portion of their fees paid from day one.
The practical answer to overcoming the divide is to open up all places at leading independent day schools on the basis of merit alone, with parents paying a sliding scale of fees according to their means. In partnership with the Girls’ Day School Trust we have piloted this ‘Open Access’ approach at The Belvedere School in Liverpool, and we know it works.
The first two cohorts of girls admitted under the scheme achieved the school’s best ever GCSE results, making The Belvedere the highest performing school – state or independent – in Liverpool. Most significantly, these results were achieved by an intake reflecting the social mix of Merseyside, with over 70 per cent of children receiving some funding, including a third on free places. An extensive evaluation of the scheme by Alan Smithers’ team at Buckingham University also found the school to be a happy place, with children of different backgrounds getting on well together and achieving excellent outcomes.
It is completely unrealistic to expect the independent sector to expand this type of scheme on its own – to introduce needs-blind admission would require an endowment of the order of £100m per school. Rather, the onus should be on the government: after all, until the 1970s, most of the places at the vast majority of these schools were free under the Direct Grant Scheme. Also, because parents are paying according to means the cost per pupil to the government would be less than the cost of a state school place.
If the government wants to encourage private schools to do more for the wider community, it needs to put its money where its mouth is and fund the roll out of Open Access on a voluntary basis, and the independent sector needs to respond accordingly. The extension of the scheme to a hundred or more independent day schools would do wonders for social mobility and would go a long way to bridging the damaging divide between our state and private education sectors.
Importantly, it would also return private day schools to their charitable roots – as educators of children from all backgrounds.
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