Closing the gap

Despite their perceived elitism, independent schools can do a lot for social mobility, says Mark Peel

For all the recent success of the independent sector in adapting to the modern world, it continues to be tainted by its privileged position, at least in the eyes of its critics. The election of an Old Etonian prime minister in 2010 and subsequent research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2014 revealing the preponderance of the privately educated among the country’s elite have only reinforced this perception.

Privilege is an emotive charge in a country where social mobility has stalled and it has been used by politicians to justify not only positive discrimination for state-educated applicants at leading universities, but also the abolition of charitable status, the tax and rate concessions enjoyed by independent schools. The independent sector claims the charge is a misleading one and ignores significant meritocratic changes in its schools. So what exactly has changed and what more needs to be done to narrow the gap between the independent sector and the rest of society?

The answer to the first question is quite a lot. Research by the Independent Schools Council has shown that nearly half of independent school pupils have parents educated in the state sector; ethnic diversity is greater than in the English state sector and the majority of teachers are now state educated, a far cry from how it used to be.

The attempt of politicians to involve the independent sector in the governance of academies has largely failed because the sector felt it lacked the necessary time and resources to deal with a gamut of educational and social problems outside its ken

It is true that the recent escalation of school fees has priced many middle-income families out of the market, something which the sector has been slow to wake up to, but in fairness it has raised millions of pounds since the abolition of the assisted places scheme in 1997 to provide bursaries for children from low-income backgrounds.

One such scheme has been the Arnold Foundation at Rugby and its success in helping young people from deprived backgrounds has given rise to the Springboard Bursary Scheme, a national charity that aims to provide 2,000 bursaries to disadvantaged children at state and independent boarding schools over the next decade. Yet admirable though these fundraising efforts have been, the sheer cost of subsidising a pupil at an independent school, especially a boarding school, has meant that only the fortunate few have benefited. Consequently there are those like Sir Peter Lampl, the chairman of the Sutton Trust, an educational charity dedicated to promoting social mobility, who favour an open access approach whereby 30,000 of the nation’s underprivileged children are granted a free education at an independent day school, their fees met by government subsidy and the schools themselves.

Lampl’s idea had the support of these schools, but both the last Labour government and the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition resisted it because of its association with selection. Their priority has been academies, state-funded schools that are independently managed. However, the attempt of politicians to involve the independent sector in the governance of academies has largely failed because the sector felt it lacked the necessary time and resources to deal with a gamut of educational and social problems outside its ken. In 2013 Dulwich College, a school with a broad social intake, was forced to pull out of its sponsorship of the troubled Isle of Sheppey Academy in north Kent, admitting that its staff weren’t equipped to help its pupils.

While the independent sector’s failure to embrace the academy movement has upset the political class, many of its schools have entered into profitable partnerships with local state schools, either by loaning out their facilities or embarking on joint cultural activities and offering specialist teaching to exam candidates. Handled sensitively, these links have proved of mutual benefit to both sides and are likely to increase in the future. Whether they are enough to make a significant difference to wider social mobility is a matter for some debate, but it is at least a step in the right direction.

Mark Peel taught history and politics at Fettes for 25 years and is the author of eight books, including recent biographies of Donald Soper, Shirley Williams and the 14th Duke of Hamilton.

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