At the moment there appears to be pressure for every school to become an academy and we are told that academies and free schools are in fact independent schools (they are actually state-funded and they are still accountable to central government).
Independent schools operate in a mostly different sphere and are subject to few government controls, other than the rather draconian Independent School Standards Regulations (ISSRs).
It is true that a few independent fee-paying schools have become state-funded academies. However, I was surprised to hear on a Radio 4 programme that “many” independent schools were becoming academies because the economic crisis was affecting parents’ ability to pay fees. The broadcaster said that seven independents had become academies (a very small percentage of the around 1,500 in the country).
Independent schools certainly have the freedom to pursue their own curriculum, within the confines of the ISSRs, and to set out their own educational objectives and ethos. They are also able to select their pupils, in accordance with their own published policy, and it is this which attracts most opprobrium.
This summer, as we celebrated our Olympians, the media focused on how many of the medal winners had attended independent schools and had thus, apparently, had some unfair advantage. Much was written about independent schools’ playing fields and other sporting facilities, and unfavourable comparisons were made with the state-maintained sector.
I am the head of a school which has excellent sporting facilities – not only do we share these with seven nearby state schools on a weekly basis, but they are open to community members. They are regularly used by thousands of people. Surely we need to increase such provision rather than denounce it?
Several articles have appeared in the press bemoaning the fact that many talented actors attended independent schools. Inevitably, references are made to their being “posh”. In fact, many people who attend independent schools in towns and cities are not from privileged backgrounds – they may be on full bursary places or have parents who have two or three jobs in order to pay for their child’s education.
Drama and theatre are rapidly disappearing from the state school curriculum, as the focus in many state schools has been on English, maths and science. If drama and opportunities to perform abound in independent schools, or indeed opportunities to play lots of sport, is that a bad thing for the country? Should we not see the independent sector as waving the flag for educational independence and keeping alive subjects which are under threat?
The dominance of independent schools in achieving the top grades at A level and gaining places at leading universities is also a subject for much venom. Opponents invariably point out that only seven per cent of the school population attends independent schools, whereas a far higher proportion gains places at prestigious universities.
Actually, the 6th form independent schools account for more than 13 per cent of the student population who sit
A levels. Many of us would like to expand our bursary schemes and offer far more places to those who are unable to pay fees (we currently have 110 bursaries). This wish is, certainly in my case, born out of a genuine desire to enable children from less privileged backgrounds to become part of our community. We are not a “posh” school; we have pupils from many backgrounds and 49 home languages.
It has been suggested that the government might give us the equivalent of the amount paid per-pupil to a state school, which we might then top up with a bursary – sadly, this appears to be politically untenable. We remain unwanted, unless to take over schools in challenging circumstances and convert them into academies. We have genuine expertise in many areas, but not necessarily in that one. Should we not be using our strengths?
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.