We are used to dealing with attacks on our sector. The run-up to the general election heralded more threatening storm clouds from all political parties. Had Labour won the general election, we could have seen significant fee increases as a result of a manifesto commitment to put VAT on school fees (although only after Brexit, however, as education is exempt from VAT according to an EU ruling). There is no doubt that if fees were to rise significantly, we would see the sector shrink. Many struggling parents would simply be priced-out of independent education. The diversity of our schools would also reduce. The closure of smaller schools would result in a worsening of perceived social inequality between the sectors.
Although that has not been the outcome, we cannot be complacent while there remains a fundamental lack of understanding about our sector in the wider court of public opinion – and in the media too. ISC seeks to address this. Independent schools tend to be labelled as elitist and out-of-touch. As the general election dust settles, we are heartened to see that our worst fears have not been realised. The Government has recognised our lobbying work on behalf of the sector in relation to their consultation, Schools that work for everyone, and this is good news for us all.
Back in June, in answer to a written Parliamentary question from an MP, the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt. Hon. Justine Greening said: 'The Government has welcomed the way that our independent schools have actively considered and proposed what more they can do to raise attainment in state schools… we intend to build on the positive and constructive conversations.' Naturally, we welcome this response from the Government and we are looking forward to continuing dialogue. We intend to work with representatives of schools in both sectors to do what we reasonably can. We believe that partnership working can benefit everyone but only if it is allowed to grow naturally through local relationships and not through legislation, imposition or enforcement.
ISC published a booklet back in April called Celebrating Partnerships outlining the enormous amount of outreach work undertaken by the schools in our sector, some of whom are not charities. We know that this work has developed to further enhance social cohesion, widening access to our sector and supporting local communities. Our schools are keenly aware of their civic duty and set out to do the right thing but, unfortunately, the general public and many MPs seem unaware of the work carried out by independent schools.
To date, 1,140 initiatives already exist in our 1,301 schools. As many as 10,000 state schools and an estimated 175,000 state school pupils benefit. There are 900 academic partnerships including, for instance, invitations to workshops, events and training; over 600 music partnerships such as sharing music staff; 1,000 sports partnerships, many with joint coaching; 600 drama partnerships, including shared facilities; plus many other types of creative partnerships, supporting curriculum enrichment of various kinds.
In school surveys, we find that independent schools are doing what they can according to individual capability and capacity. The typical size of an ISC school is a mere 165 pupils. About two thirds of our schools educate fewer than 400 children. They are small. They are not rich. They are not-for-profit enterprises. The parents pay taxes but don’t take up the state school places they are entitled to – saving the tax payer £5,500 on average per year for each of the half a million pupils in our sector. ISC schools don’t have the wherewithal to change education for all state school pupils but they are willing to do what they realistically can to help.
It should be remembered that there are very few independent schools compared with state schools – 1,300 schools in ISC and around 23,000 state schools nationally. Parents have a right to exercise their freedom to choose the best, most appropriate education for their children, based on individual needs. This includes choosing an independent school if they so wish. It is a lazy characterisation to portray fee-paying parents as being privileged customers who ought to pay yet more. It also overlooks the fact that 43,563 pupils at ISC schools receive means tested assistance through bursaries, amounting to a total of £384 million in bursary assistance.
Our schools have shown that they are willing to help provide opportunities and experiences for children from families across all walks of life. Something that our schools are particularly good at is education in specialised areas such as dance and music, or with boarding, and even special educational needs. Sadly, it seems that very little is known about this work publicly, but we hope to be able to gradually change this in due course.
Independent schools want to be seen as part of the diverse educational landscape of this country. Innovative practice can inspire others and where we have resources, we are willing to link together for the common good. It should not be assumed however that all ISC schools are large, rich or have a foundation to fund support work for the state sector or help to run state schools. We hope that politicians will continue to positively encourage partnerships in ways that suit schools’ local circumstances and ISC will continue to engage with the Government in this process.