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The Access Challenge in The State of Independence

  • 25 April 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

Tonight, a new book on the state of independent education will be officially launched by Routledge. With 57 short contributions, many of the authors will be well-known to HEPI’s readers for they include a Vice Chancellor, a peer, various academics, a former special adviser to a Conservative Secretary of State for Education, think tankers, an education journalist and a former Labour Secretary of State for Education.

My own chapter in the book draws comparisons between independent schools and UK universities. It is reprinted below, with kind permission of Routledge.

Photo by Aaron Burson on Unsplash

The post-war school system in England and Wales was established by the 1944 Education Act. Section 81 of the Act that enabled Local Education Authorities to pay for people to attend independent schools also enabled them to pay the costs for people to attend university. This made sense as leading independent schools and leading universities have a great deal in common. Both are elite, academic, selective, autonomous, expensive and offer an all-round education, and they both have a long tradition of providing residential education.

In the decades afterwards, university students gradually received more and more public money – the state effectively bought hundreds of thousands of university places and the financial barriers blocking access to higher education were removed. For a while, it seemed the same would happen at independent schools. A 1944 report commissioned by Winston Churchill’s wartime Coalition Government recommended one-quarter of places at leading independent boarding schools should be funded by the state. Two decades later, a report commissioned by Harold Wilson’s Government recommended taxpayers should sponsor half the places at leading independent boarding schools. That never happened, but Margaret Thatcher responded to the abolition of direct-grant status by Shirley Williams – still probably the UK’s worst-ever education policy – by introducing the Assisted Places Scheme. This took up 75,000 independent day school places before its demise in 1998.

State-funded independent school places have come and gone (exceptional circumstances aside), and it is unlikely they will come back soon. Even the Conservative Party has not backed the policy for 20 years [since David Willetts ruled it out in 1998]. Yet, we continue to subsidise hundreds of thousands of undergraduates at our universities, which have many of the same features as our leading independent schools. Why?

First, school bursaries seem very expensive to ministers. The fees for a day place at an independent school for just a single term are often broadly the same as the annual amount spent on each child in a state school. Taxpayer-funded bursaries fail every official cost-benefit test as the money can always secure more bang-for-buck elsewhere. In contrast, the subsidised loans that university students receive do not count as current public spending. It is sometimes said that state-funded bursaries can be made affordable by clever tweaks. Perhaps that is so, but it does not tackle the second problem.

Bursaries are, by definition, selective. They have to be rationed because they are not available to all. So there has to be a mechanism for deciding who is to benefit. Yet it is 50 years since the UK had a government that was firmly committed to secondary-school selection. When it comes to deciding who should receive state-funded independent school bursaries, as a Minister for Education said over 50 years ago, ‘nobody knows what would be just or why.’ A good teacher deals with each pupil as an individual, but governments feel that tackling social mobility through boosting the life chances of a few individuals is, in David Cameron’s memorable phrase, ‘splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate’.

The third factor explaining why our universities are full of state-sponsored students but our independent schools are not is that our university sector, with the notable exception of Oxbridge, has displayed a voracious appetite for expansion. In contrast, except when suffering particularly torrid times (as in the early years of the Second World War) independent schools have been lukewarm about taking public cash as a route to expansion. They have worried about the strings that would be attached – and, rightly so, for they are less able to defend themselves than universities.

State-sponsored places are not the only way for independent schools to boost social mobility. Another route that has found support in the past is to fund bursaries by charging more for full-fee pupils – in other words, introducing as much means-testing as possible by ensuring rich families cross-subsidise poor ones. The university system in the United States is instructive here. At private not-for-profit colleges in the United States, nine-out-of-ten new students do not pay the ‘sticker price’ and the average discount is half the full fee. But this is a recipe for confusion because people are unsure how much they will pay.

Yet robust analysis shows bursaries can work well for individuals when donors are willing to pay for them. Take the very talented Professor Sir David Watson, who understood the potential for education to transform lives better than anyone else I have ever met. Before he died in 2015, he was the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton, Principal of an Oxford college and the UK’s foremost Professor of Higher Education. I wonder if that would have happened if an Eton housemaster had not decided he needed someone who could sight-read on the piano when deciding who deserved a funded place.

Or take Sir Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist who felt he owed so much to his time at the University of Oxford, that he donated over $100 million for student bursaries. That is the sort of money that can make a huge difference to individuals and society. So if there is a lesson from my own educational research for independent schools today, it is this: look less for support from government and invest even more in finding support from individual and corporate donors.

The State of Independence: Key challenges facing private schools today is avilable with a 20% discount here.

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