So how’s it going? If you were remotely connected to independent schools this summer when the latest ISC census came out, your answer must have been: “Blooming marvellous, thank you!”
We have long proclaimed the value of independent education: long days and many inspirational teachers – only 13% of ISC schools’ classroom staff are teaching assistants, who make up 35% of state school staff. Fantastic facilities for sport and drama and music, as well as classrooms, laboratories and libraries. Many pools and pitches for many sports – how many of our Olympians were products of independent schools, where those sporting talents were nurtured? Lots of activities outside the classroom – clubs and societies for debating and astronomy and model airplanes and computer coding: you name it and if three of you want it, we’ll lay it on, which I think is a mantra at Eton and probably many others beside.
All of this is a marketing man’s dream and will feature in the brochure and the ads and in recruiting trips to China. But the primary draw, the big gun in any school’s marketing armoury, will be the grades. These schools, with their rich environments and their wide-sweeping provision in both curricular and extracurricular terms, produce the goods. Children educated in these schools really do attain the best exam grades in the country. Only grammar schools, wholly selective on entry, come close. If you can afford a house in the right catchment area, if you can tutor a child for entry, they too are wonderful schools, so good and so desirable it’s a disgrace there are fewer than 170 in the country, with almost a third of them in Kent.
But I digress: the grades. There was a time when you could actually celebrate a mixed bag of GCE O and A levels, which usually gave a fair reflection of your academic strengths and weaknesses, often suggesting a broadly arts or science bias, polymaths with uniform As being fairly rare. And that was OK. I know very senior doctors who attended top universities having “scraped in with a couple of Cs” at A level. Those days are, of course, gone. Whatever else exams do, they no longer display your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re even reasonably bright, the expectation is straight As, preferably with stars, across the board. Exams which used to be deeply mysterious affairs have been made formulaic and passable, as in a GCSE English lit paper requiring study of a dozen poems, clean copies provided in the exam room, instead of a hundred to learn and no comfort-blanket text book in the exam itself. (Sorry – a personal hobby-horse still causing me apoplexy.) So exams are now constructed to offer no old-fashioned evidence of difference in interest or application. Straight A*s are possible and therefore expected, and it will be surely hard to turn the clock back – viz new maths GCSEs recently proposed but returned to sender because considered too hard.
Independent schools have our present exams completely taped. If exams have been made do-able for the least able, the most able or the best taught or both will harvest the stars. Short-term destination: the best universities. Long-term destination: the top of a professional tree. Independent education is a ladder to giddy heights.
It is, of course, also more than that: the things you do and the people you meet are also vital. The extent of the extracurricular programme, the rubbing shoulders with people going generally in your direction – up – but in different, sometimes related fields – these are the icing on the examination cake, to mix a few metaphors.
Research indicates that being connected matters for success in this world. Check out the ‘small world’ experiments, the ‘pass the parcel’ tests measuring degrees of connectivity, with participants asked to forward a parcel to someone whom they did not know and with very few details, starting – obviously – with people whom they did know. In some cases it was only a couple of stops from first sender to addressee. The more connected people were, the more people they knew in disparate fields, the faster the parcels’ progress. There has long been a derogatory name for it in Britain: the old school tie.
But it’s exactly what today’s discerning parent wants: contacts. Friends who will ultimately be in high or faraway places, possibly both. You get posted to Hong Kong? Great to have someone there with whom you went to school – doors will open, entry is comfortable. There is more to education than the grades.
If all of the above is a truth universally acknowledged, then no wonder independent schools have had such a stunning year. Recession? What recession? Total numbers at ISC schools this year: 517,113. Brilliant. Up from 511,928 last year. Even more impressive, boarding numbers up to 70,642, their highest since 2003. After years of fairly ‘steady state’, boarding is growing again and is a vibrant, attractive and viable part of what the independent sector offers the world.
We have grown accustomed to the growth in numbers in the sixth forms of independent schools: understandably parents fund two years of fees more easily than five or seven, and the ‘small classes, expert teaching’ recipe for exam success at A level is priceless. But if you are new to a school in the sixth form, you are more likely to be a boarder – 6,870 of them – than a day pupil, of whom there were 5,003. Students and parents alike are seeing boarding as a valuable stepping stone to the full independence of university. Boarding, you might say, is not just about the grades, it’s about the whole life.
For some years, international students have been seen as the life-blood of boarding. British parents were increasingly deterred by climbing prices, yes, but also by a growing perception that boarding was a bizarre and alien practice. What British parents debated about, Chinese parents grabbed as soon as they were free to do so, equipped with an important cultural difference pointed out to me by the director of the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office: “You British – you hold on to your children! I do not understand it! In China, if it is a good thing for the child to go three thousand miles away at the age of seven to get the best education which will transform his life chances, a Chinese parent will move heaven and earth to make it possible – and a good prep school will get my child a scholarship to a top senior school – perhaps even Eton! It will save me money in the long run!”
There is no doubt that independent schools have taken the 21st century by storm: academically, they are out on their own; boarding schools, with statutory standards, regular inspection and CPD for boarding staff, professionals not amateurs, where the emotional and psychological welfare of students is as important as their physical health, have never been so good.
And as my Chinese friend declared: “Yes, an independent education looks expensive, but consider your child’s future earning capacity – from which he or she will support your old age – and it’s not a luxury at all, it’s a bargain.”
Hilary Moriarty is an education consultant, following six years of headship and eight years as National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.