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Why the war on independent schools is unwarranted

Our independent schools face constant political pressure but remain a shining example of global British success, writes Christopher Silvester

With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the warpath, threatening to impose VAT on private education fees to fund school meals for state pupils, and with the upward pressure on fees a constant gripe for their customers, Britain’s independent schools nonetheless continue to represent a beacon of excellence, not just nationally but internationally. Spear’s has asked three heads what they think about the challenges they face.

Our first head, David Goodhew took the reins at Latymer Upper School (day fees £19,260 per year) in west London in 2012. ‘I’m a local boy, so when I go to our school playing fields at Wood Lane I can see Hammersmith Hospital, which is where I was born and where my two sons were born, and if I turn round I can see the block of flats on Latymer Road where I grew up,’ says Goodhew, 46.

His father was a postman, his mother was a cleaner, and he went to the local comprehensive, then on to Oxford, where he read classics. Because there were very few classics teaching jobs in the state sector, he ended up in the independent sector, first at Eton College and subsequently as head of classics at Bristol Grammar, while most of his senior management experience was up in the North East and the North West: ‘So I’ve kind of come full circle and I’ve ended up back where I started.’

Since we are living through ‘an unprecedented time of rapid social and technological change’, Goodhew argues, this is having an impact on what we ‘should be doing to future-
proof our students. Traditional academic subject knowledge is not necessarily going to prepare people for a world where artificial intelligence and robotics are going to disrupt the traditional professions for which independent schools are used to providing candidates. So the way you teach needs to encourage flexibility, risk-taking, curiosity, resilience, and the ability to bounce back from failure. The challenge for us is how we inculcate those ways of thinking, because you can’t do GCSE resilience or A-level entrepreneurship.’

For Goodhew, the focus needs to be on the quality of teaching. Retaining the best staff is now more important than a building facilities arms race, and at Latymer there is a programme of coaching and professional development for all staff. Pastoral care has always been important, he adds, but is even more so now with the national crisis in teenage mental health. You need a rounded approach to education, the embracing of extracurricular activities – sport, music, drama. All these things give you a way in to developing those characteristics – like resilience, like teamwork, like the ability to cope with failure – that are so important.

‘You want the maximum possible diversity, because you won’t do people any favours now if you educate them inside a sort of privileged bubble or a gated community – the real world isn’t like that,’ he says. ‘That’s one of the reasons we have such a flourishing bursary programme, and why we’re that rarest of things in London – a fully co-educational school.’

Since Latymer Upper is a former direct grant grammar school, bursaries are very much part of its ethos. ‘Sixteen per cent of the school population are in receipt of financial assistance of some kind, but 10 per cent are on means-tested bursaries – approximately 135 students,’ says Goodhew. ‘Unusually, the majority of our bursaries are free places. Back in 2004, around one in 100 pupils were on bursaries; by 2014 it was one in ten. We’re on our way to making that one in five, which would be fantastic. We would like to get to 2024, which is our 400th birthday, and be in the position where we are the most socially inclusive independent school in the UK.’

The school has also devised its own courses to promote a more international outlook, with one course called ‘world perspectives’ and a new one called ‘global goals’, which looks at UN sustainability targets. ‘Our default languages are Spanish and Mandarin, and we have exchange programmes but also curriculum links using technology with schools all around the world.’

Goodhew’s sons are seven months old and two and a half. He’s not going to decide where they should go until they’re older. ‘Of course, I would love it if Latymer Upper were the right school for them,’ he adds. He and his wife would prefer a day school as a family choice, but he would be happy to consider Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire, ‘a real hidden gem of a boarding school’, where he serves as a governor.

Not too far from Dauntsey’s is Bryanston School in Dorset (boarding fees £36,984 per year), where Sarah Thomas has been head for 12 years. Her father taught at a public school in Liverpool, and her mother at a convent school in the Wirral. Thomas, 55, went to a Girls Public Day School Trust (now GDST) school, read classics at Oxford, worked briefly in the City as an articled clerk, which did not suit her, then did a teacher training degree at King’s College, London. She got her first teaching job at Sevenoaks, then went to Uppingham as deputy head before landing at Bryanston.

Much of what makes a school great is ‘about providing a range of opportunities and getting the balance right between academic and other pursuits, and that is fundamentally underpinned with first-class pastoral care’, she says. ‘Also, we need to be on our toes about new challenges, which will require imagination and ideas, creativity and balance. I think all those things come from having a reasonably broad intake of pupils with different backgrounds and interests. And my prime job as head is to set the right conditions, make the right staff appointments. My next job is the bigger picture, what my bursar calls “horizon-scanning”, looking a little further down the line than at one set of colleagues.’

For as long as Thomas has been teaching, the big existential debate for the independent sector has been about access and anti-elitism. ‘All good schools are moving money away from pure scholarship to bursary,’ she says. ‘When I started in headship, schools were still offering 50 per cent, scholarship only. I don’t think many of them do that any more, because what schools like mine are doing is to ensure you have a broader range of child able to come to the school. The other thing you can do is to have pure bursaries. That’s harder for a rural boarding school to achieve than it might be for a day school in London.’

Bryanston raises the funds for bursaries through its development office, but some of the money comes out of gross fee income. ‘How we manage that ethically and effectively is a decision for the governors and me,’ says Thomas.

‘Because we’re independent we can try new things, look at different exam systems, look at mental health and wellbeing in our schools. We have a sector in the independent sector that’s prepared to be cutting-edge, prepared to be a brand leader. We do have a particular quality and flavour of education that’s very attractive to foreigners, and it probably comes from that distillation of real consideration and energy being directed to what is the purpose of a proper education.’

Both her daughters came to Bryanston and flourished there. ‘If I had the chance I would send myself to Timbertop for a year over in Australia,’ she says. ‘If I had to send my daughters to a day school it would be JAGS [James Allen’s Girls’ School] in London, because I have huge regard for the headmistress there.’

Ben Figgis is another headmaster confronting the world, albeit with a slightly different plan. The son of a diplomat, Figgis was an expatriate boarder, sent aged eight to a prep school in Chichester, and thereafter to Sherborne and Girton College, Cambridge, where he read history.

Figgis, 49, has been head at Ardingly College (day fees £22,650 per year, boarding £31,950) in West Sussex for three years. He was previously deputy head at Oakham in Rutland for nine years, and before that he was a housemaster at Abingdon in Oxfordshire. His early career was in media, advertising and television, which he found unfulfilling. ‘One of the great things about education is that it encourages hope and humanity,’ he says.

He believes schools have become obsessed with grades and have ‘undercooked’ the preparation of children for the world outside. ‘There’s a limited amount of time at school, and you can’t spend all your time at school preparing for exams and carve out time for children to engage with the outside world that would help them to become ready for that world. What we offer our children is an understanding of the world of work, an understanding of the technology that surrounds them and how they interact with it, and an understanding of their responsibilities towards their society.’

For three years Ardingly has been working on a concept called World Ready. ‘To my mind it encapsulates the big challenge to schools that aspire to be great schools in terms of what they do for their children as opposed to their history,’ says Figgis. ‘If they really aspire to be great schools they need to be connecting with the world beyond their gates. You have to connect pupils to the outside world – to employers, to other schools, whether local maintained schools or international schools. We belong to a network with a dozen schools around the world with which we are not just having exchanges but developing online projects.’

He too recognises the importance of bursaries in the independent sector, although ‘there are almost as many situations and perspectives on public benefit as there are schools, because each school has a different level of wealth with which it could fund these bursaries. The majority of public schools are reliant on the fee income from parents, but at Ardingly we also have a very active commercial arm, chiefly in letting out the facilities in the holidays, which funds our bursaries.’

Ardingly is an unendowed school. A third of its pupils have some sort of scholarship or bursarial support, at an approximate cost of £750,000 from a turnover of £20 million, but only around half a dozen are fully supported. ‘We’re nowhere near the position where we could become means-blind,’ says Figgis. ‘Some of the big London schools – St Paul’s, Dulwich – have expressed an intention to become means-blind over a 20- to 30-year period.’

Parents have demanded greater professionalism from schools in response to ever-burgeoning fees, with the result that there is much greater consistency in standards of teaching and pastoral care. At the same time, there has been increased government regulation in these areas as well, especially child protection and safeguarding.

Figgis believes that what differentiates British public schools from schools in other Western European countries is the commitment of the teachers. ‘We have the International Baccalaureate, so we have a lot of European pupils who come here, and the experience they describe of their old schools is of finishing at one or two o’clock in the afternoon and of teachers not being open or willing to sit down with the student to give them additional help. Parents want teachers who are fully committed to their students.’

Figgis’s children attend Ardingly, but he ‘would only ever consider sending my children to schools that are co-educational and offer the IB diploma. Sixth-formers need to have choice between A-levels and another exam programme.’

Internationally, British independent schools may be regarded as beacons of real educational vision, but within the UK they ‘are demonised by every political party as being everything that’s wrong with this country’, says Latymer Upper’s Goodhew. The irony is not lost on him. ‘The truth is they’re doing something globally that’s regarded as extremely valuable. Indeed, our universities and independent education are two of our biggest intellectual exports.’