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Book Review: ‘The State of Independence. Key Challenges Facing Private Schools Today.’

  • 16 May 2019
  • By Francis Green

The State of Independence. Key Challenges Facing Private Schools Today Edited by David James and Jane Lunnon. London, Routledge.

This book review has been kindly contributed by Francis Green, Professor of Work and Education Economics at UCL Institute of Education, and co-author, with historian David Kynaston, of ‘Engines of Privilege. Britain’s Private School Problem’, (Bloomsbury 2019).

Private school leaders and sector authorities are sometimes more informative and thought-provoking when talking mainly to themselves – as in this interesting, eclectic collection of essays – than when addressing the rest of us in defensive and propaganda mode, or when preaching to the wider world about how children should be educated. Here, some 56 such figures, including a few ‘outsiders’, have contributed short essays describing what they see as the challenges facing private schools. The emphasis is mainly, though by no means exclusively, on Britain’s private schools.

Multiple ‘challenges’ are addressed, including: the pastoral, the academic at secondary and junior levels, financial issues, the question of access and diversity, the issues posed by modern conceptions of gender fluidity, the need or otherwise for innovation, the expansion of international education, and contemporary politics.

The international section is striking. Experienced school leader Mark Steed explains that there are more than five million children at English medium international schools, with more than a third of the schools British. There are nearly 50 overseas campuses of British private schools, operating in a world where global education is becoming big business with upwards of a $5 trillion turnover. British independent schools are getting involved because they have a saleable brand and the commercial opportunities are there. For Dulwich College’s Cameron Pyke, the challenge is to find a way to align a school’s commercial strategy with its education mission. There are, however, contradictions involved. Expansion abroad is not easily conveyed at home as a way to resolve the social exclusivity of Britain’s expensive schools; and if the object is explicitly to make profits to be repatriated, that may not sit well in the long run with host countries. Recruiting consultants Edward Clark and Helen Wright fear that, the more successful are the cheap foreign versions of Britain’s private schools, the more they will compete for the children of ex-pats and foreign nationals, undermining the demand for the ‘real thing’ in England. For Canberra Grammar’s head Justin Garrick and other commentators, however, the real challenge is to ‘equip all children – in both the base and the offshoot schools – for what they are destined to be: the world’s first truly global generation’.

I learned less from the academic section, though there it is interesting to observe played out the complexities of ‘independence’. More than one writer celebrates private schools’ independence – nothing new in that. But they also rail against the pressures coming from exams, universities and parents, who constrain their freedoms. They must seek out their freedoms at the edges, therefore: in the pre-GCSE periods of secondary education, for instance. For Helen Pike (Master of Magdalen College School) the way out is to keep independent schools as havens for the most able pupils and teachers, something which only works, of course, in schools that are both extraordinarily affluent and selective. She regards her profession as ‘day care for the severely abled’.

The drollest essay comes from Radley’s Director of Digital Strategy, Ian Yorston. In his contribution (drafted in his garden on his phone) he seems to think independent school alumni contribute enough to the country’s output of innovations (think Alan Turing, Tim Berners-Lee, Douglas Adams, we are urged). The schools themselves should not innovate at all, other than to do less, deploying AI to eliminate many of teachers’ modern-day tasks.

The ‘financial challenges’ section starts off badly, with some frankly shallow moralising from the editors about the ethics of allowing unfettered access to private schooling: ‘In a free society people should be entitled to spend their money on what they want, as long as it does not explicitly cause other people harm’. The usual stuff, in other words, which pays no heed to the unique quality of schools, their role in helping individuals become who they are, and their part in shaping society.

Nor does the discussion go on to contemplate whether they might actually be doing harm to others. Yet some straight-talking material awaits from Wellington College’s Finance Director Steven Crouch. Writing about the top end of the sector, for example, he recognises that ‘schools are a positional good – it is their exclusivity both in terms of the wealth of the parents as well as the school’s capacity to be academically selective, that makes them so desired.’

Crouch also honestly expresses what any outsider can tell from a sober look at the numbers: that the sector would be hurt by the imposition of a sales tax, but would survive ‘largely intact’. He points out, in fact, that after some retrenchment in the long run, and some reversal of the teacher:pupil ratio gains of the last thirty years, the state could only gain from the release of thousands of teachers – a ‘boon for the state sector’.

Honesty is shown here, too, by John Edward, Director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools. While he does not like the full business local government taxes that are soon to be imposed on private schools north of the border, he proclaims a similar point about this minor intrusion into their finances: the schools will not change. The critics of the independent sector ‘will receive no satisfaction’, he declares. (I believe he is partially inaccurate, here: critics may see it as at least a symbolic victory, because many in the public view exemption from full business rates for private schools as wrong per se. Yet he is correct that things in reality won’t change, because the scale of the tax exemption that is to be removed is small in relation to the private schools’ turnover.)

Most private school heads do not have much time for thinking ahead at the national level; they rely on leaders and commentators to represent the sector and point the way. So they may read the concluding essays, concerning the political challenge, with some frustration. The story is partly a reality check. As journalist Ed Dorrell concludes, ‘the independent sector is losing (has lost?) the battle for hearts and minds among both the ruling classes and the aspirant middle classes. But I’m not sure many in the sector truly understand the extent of their predicament’.

Some might consider this alarmist, but in my judgement there is indeed a degree of hostility towards private schools in contemporary British politics that has not been seen for many decades. Yet still too much of the discourse, both widely and in this book, is defensive, rather than collectively trying to find a way forward. Education expert and former teacher John Blake perhaps realises this, when he writes that ‘we should be honest that not every independent school can point to a long list of well-thought out, targeted and useful interventions it has made in the state sector’ – though I regard this as an understatement. Tom Richmond, a researcher at Policy Exchange, thinks that the schools are ‘entitled’ to defend themselves and ‘fend off’ pressures to recast their role in the education system, but still warns ‘the risk is that by doing less now, private schools might be forced to do even more in future, and for that they will only have themselves to blame.’

One of the sillier defences rolled out by the editors is to point to the horrors of abolition in rather apocalyptic terms, but they do not consider any of the suggested potential reforms that have been proposed. Indeed, the book contains little recognition of the charge of unfairness that is levelled at Britain’s incredibly expensive private schooling.

The editors do not seem to wonder why many people, not just those on the left of politics, think it unfair. There is only this awareness of hostile external forces, deemed as challenges, something to be defended against, rarely to be engaged with. Of course, there are good examples of grand efforts on bursaries and of meaningful partnerships but, overall, bursary payouts only just keep pace with the expansion of pupil numbers, with still barely one per cent of pupils going free. And there is a virtual absence of information about the extent to which partnerships really entail a significant narrowing of the private/state resources gap.

The only serious consideration of the moral challenge comes in the final essay from philosopher Roger Scruton, who does not try to obfuscate reality: ‘The education provided by [independent] schools is not merely a privilege, but a privilege that disadvantages those who do not possess it. It ensures that pupils graduating from independent schools confront opportunities that are open to them, but not to the remainder’.

Scruton wants, however, to defend such privilege. It is not just the libertarian argument – which he seems to conceive as an absolutist one, implying that critics want to prevent independent education altogether (which is manifestly not the case). It is also that we should prioritise the duties of parents to do the best for their children, from which arises a natural case for independent education if this produces the best. And again, this is absolutist: no consideration is given to critics and reformists – they are in effect lumped in as abolitionists who want to stop parents doing their duty.

Most important of all, Scruton opines, are the needs of society for elites and for the transmission of knowledge. Independent education has ‘evolved’ to respond to these desires, ensuring our (i.e. Britain’s) national survival, and enabling the ‘conditions in which new knowledge is acquired and old knowledge conserved’. He concludes that ‘The interest of knowledge might sometimes require setting aside the demand for equality in favour of the right of teachers to decide who their pupils should be’. Make of all that what you will. It would be entertaining, though hardly productive, to see such arguments taken up in a public discourse.

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