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Just what is the state of private education in 2023? By Nick Hillman

  • 8 February 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, takes a look at a new book on private schools, The State of Independence.
  • The book brings together 55 different authors – including academics, a vice-chancellor and numerous education policy experts (such as Sam Freedman, Lord Lucas, Jonathan Simons, Ann Mroz and Tom Richmond).

Valuing independence

As the Director of an independent education charity, I know the value of independence in education lies partly in the freedom to speak plainly, directly and clearly, unencumbered by the red tape that may control what you can say and do elsewhere.

Such freedom is the hallmark of this new book just as much as it is the hallmark of the independent schools that the book is about, guaranteeing diversity of opinion and thought-provoking lines. For example, in an argument against spoon-feeding facts, Ian Warwick reminds readers: ‘[Students] must feel comfortable in the liminal space between knowing and not knowing something for as long as is necessary.’ Overall, the book is readable and pacey, which is quite a feat given there were so many authors to corral; either the contributors were judiciously chosen or the editors were very busy.

The sort of tensions that make life interesting are evident from the off, such as:

  • between the ‘pressure-cooker environment’ of independent schools and the need to promote creativity in pupils;
  • between the comparative advantages of independent school pupils during the worst of COVID and the desire of the independent school sector to appear as part of a wider school system;
  • between depth and breadth when it comes to curricula; and
  • between parental demands and institutional autonomy.

It’s a real strength of this collection that such complexities are not shied away from but openly discussed. Independent schools clearly see a more accurate reflection of themselves when they look in the mirror than they did back in the days when they considered it was enough to point out to policymakers that they not only saved taxpayers a few bob by getting richer families to pay for their own schooling but also squeezed in a few poorer pupils via bursaries.

One other tension referred to by many of the contributors is the current political threat to independent schools’ financial position on the one hand and their desire to use any spare resources working in partnership with others. In particular, Labour’s threat to impose VAT on school fees has clearly spooked the independent school sector’s leaders, even if they are not yet united on the best arguments to defeat the idea.

Labour’s threat to impose VAT on school fees has clearly spooked the independent school sector’s leaders, even if they are not yet united on the best arguments to defeat the idea.

The most memorable tension mentioned comes near the end, however. The ‘political’ chapter includes more than one warning that independent schools might be overstretching themselves in following the woke zeitgeist: Claire Fox and Katherine Birbalsingh (who writes despairingly of independent schools’ ‘self-flaggelation’) don’t explicitly use the phrase, but their arguments are reminiscent of the slogan ‘Get Woke, Go Broke’. Consequently, the editors discourage private schools from too much virtue-signalling:

for any sector that charges so much for its services to engage with lessons on privilege is playing a game it may not know the rules to, and risks losing more than it can gain.

Mental health

The book starts with a welcome look at young people’s mental health in a section badged ‘pastoral’. This term is treated as a synonym for mental health, which is quite the turnaround. When I was at a private boarding school 40 years ago, ‘pastoral’ tended to mean everything that was non-academic except for mental health, which was never spoken about.

Back then, the word ‘pastoral’ had a hard edge to it too. Pupils were expected to stand on their own two feet to such a degree that awful behaviour could fester and grow. When the Children’s Act (1988) went through, some schools even balked at the idea that their child pupils were expected to have access to pay phones set up in such a way that would enable a private conversation.

In stark contrast, the pastoral chapters here are all about promoting diversity and individualism. There’s much to agree with and the authors (including Bettina Hohnen of UCL and Rachel Kelly, who is affiliated to KCL) are undoubtedly fiercely committed to this agenda. But parental expectations and the link between a school’s prestige and its exam results, including their impact on entry to selective universities, are surely likely to go on piling an unhealthy amount of pressure on some independent school pupils. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Tiger Mums were widely fêted.

There is, later on in the book, a chapter on ‘diversity’, which also reminds us how much things have changed for the better in independent schools in recent decades. I am ashamed to admit that at my two boarding schools 40 or so years ago, the n-word, the p-word and the y-word were in regular use. Here, in contrast, leaders from a range of backgrounds reflect upon how many independent schools sit in diverse cities and recruit diverse (often rich, but ethnically diverse) pupils from the UK and abroad, as well as on how much more there still is to do – for example in recruiting more diverse headteachers – to deliver a more rounded education.

Academic matters

‘Pastoral’ is followed by ‘academic’ and here there is a healthy dose of scepticism about some of the wilder predictions that are often made about the future of education (generally made, it has to be said, from those not at the coalface). We are, rightly in my view, told instead that, ‘it seems unlikely that in ten years’ time, schools will be completely unrecognisable from today’s institutions.’

One of the most interesting contributions in the ‘academic’ section is by the headteacher Helen Pike. She shows leading independent schools, who used to recruit lots of staff without teaching qualifications, have caught up with their state-sector counterparts when it comes to an interest in pedagogy. She situates the Department for Education’s (controversial) desire for model curricula as part of a return to knowledge-rich schooling. She is particularly good on the extra demands placed on teachers by the rollout of edtech, which she points out has failed to reduce workload in the way so many had predicted. Alone among the authors, Helen Pike also considers the desperate shortage of entrants to the teaching profession, which is a problem universities could do more to solve if only they were supported to do so.

Another head, Jesse Elzinga, kicks out at universities’ entry procedures for encouraging depth over breadth. This is hard to argue against – even if it is worth noting that UK degrees (exempting Scotland) have tended to be at the shorter end, which encourages an expectation than freshers will already be familiar with their degree discipline. Degrees could be made longer of course but policymakers prefer three-year (and even two-year) degrees over four-year degrees, as they are cheaper and keep people out of the labour market for less time – while the tradition in some other countries of degrees that might take five or six years has gone out of vogue as a result of things like the Bologna Process.

Either way, it is perhaps a little ironic that highly selective universities should so regularly claim the future is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, for example when bidding for additional research funds, while simultaneously preferring new students to arrive with a deep knowledge in just one area or another.


The chapter on the financial challenges facing independent schools is the one that brings us closest to current debates on higher education. We are told that there is too much reliance on fees, that staff pensions are too expensive and that there is not enough diversity of revenue streams.

We are told that there is too much reliance on fees, that staff pensions are too expensive and that there is not enough diversity of revenue streams.

This last point is further developed in a later section on ‘international’ focusing on transnational education, in which Exeter’s former Vice-Chancellor and the UK Government’s International Education Champion, Steve Smith, is revealed to be as strong a supporter of outward-looking schools as he is of outward-looking universities.

One chapter in the finance section is written by a serving Vice-Chancellor, James Tooley, who brings his own academic research and practical experience to bear in arguing that, ‘A diversity of private schools, at all price points, is a much better way of improving educational quality and accountability than consigning almost everyone to bog-standard state schools.’

Public relations (PR)

While it is a fascinating collection, there is – perhaps inevitably – a slight arrogance in tone to some of it. Our independent schools are fantastic, but readers motivated enough to pick up a book about them do not need to be told it so often. And their excellence is not exactly surprising given they get, on average, three times the resource of a state school for each pupil.

Yet there is a long tail of schools behind Eton and Cheltenham Ladies College and, on some measures the UK’s independent schools’ results are no better than their state counterparts once factors like the background of their pupils has been taken into account – among the authors here, only Conrad Hughes, who runs a school in Switzerland and is involved with the University of People, admits the point.

In my own short contribution, I sound some warnings about the independent school sector’s PR, including an anecdote about when a special adviser told me the debate on independent schools had changed because policymakers like him no longer knew people who could afford the fees. Now that I’ve read everyone else’s chapters, I haven’t changed my mind: it is possible to be a fan of independent schools while remaining unconvinced that the role these schools play in their communities is either as deep or as well-known as some of the contributors claim.

I argue in my piece that the schools could look to challenge this by having ‘more vocal’ heads, assuming of course they adopt the right tone to be persuasive role in public debates, perhaps in the mould of the two excellent editors of this book: David James and Jane Lunnon. 


But no book is perfect and, if I have a complaint on the facts, it is the willingness of various contributors to accept the widely-quoted figure that 7% of children are educated privately. It is (nearly) true but, like lots of averages, it masks more than it reveals. For example, the proportion is far higher in certain places (such as in Edinburgh) and at certain stages (such as in the sixth form). So the 7% number reveals as much as it conceals and its constant repetition leaves a false impression about the true shape of independent schooling in the UK. If I were a lobbyist for independent schools, I would strongly discourage the figure’s use by those in the sector.

Another quibble is that the teacher-editors’ red pen might have been exercised in even more places. The collection does not escape vague eduspeak: we are told there is a need for a ‘values toolkit’, ‘a holistic approach’ and ‘the right value proposition’. Change, many contributors state, must be implemented ‘proactively’ – as opposed to ‘inactively’ or ‘passively’ perhaps? (Given these schools are our custodians of the Classics, I also cannot resist pointing out there are too many requests for ‘tangible’ changes that would be, in each and every case, completely intangible…)

Why is it that the incredibly exciting potential of technology to change education is so often portrayed in mundane and inaccessible ways?

However, I found just one of the dozens of essays impenetrable – it was in the ‘innovation’ section, which has some interesting sparks but is also the longest and the dullest. Why is it that the incredibly exciting potential of technology to change education is so often portrayed in mundane and inaccessible ways?

Why do private school pupils so often fall behind in higher education?

My final thought is one I have put directly to representatives of independent schools in private many times before. If the evidence shows independent school pupils often fall behind similarly qualified state-educated pupils once they reach higher education, does this mean:

  1. Private schools sometimes squeeze too much out of their pupils at the expense of a balanced childhood?
  2. State schools fail to get as much out of their pupils as they could if they were better resourced?
  3. Universities are being given oven-ready independently educated pupils and then letting them coast, often for the first time in their lives?
  4. Independent schools are spoon-feeding so much that their pupils are poorly prepared for the rigours of independent learning?

Who knows? Perhaps it is a combination of all four. While I didn’t find an answer to this point in the book, I did nonetheless find the answer to many others as well as much food for thought.

even people with the shortest of attention spans are likely to find the various contributions a very useful compendium on the state of independent education in the UK as we leave the pandemic behind

And given the multi-authored structure, with lots of short contributions, even people with the shortest of attention spans are likely to find the various contributions a very useful compendium on the state of independent education in the UK as we leave the pandemic behind.

Other articles by Nick Hillman on policies towards independent schools can be accessed here:

1 comment

  1. Blandscape says:

    And what, exactly, would the likes of Fox and Birbalsingh actually bring to the table, besides the same re-heated, faux-libertarian guff that’s been appearing ad nauseum in the Spechater and Daily Torygraph for years?

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