There are number of truths about social mobility in the UK. It’s a good thing. It’s a problem. And education is meant to be a solution to that problem. The creation of more grammar schools may be now a wreck on the policy highway of Mrs May, but social mobility was the purpose of that wrecked policy. In this matter, independent education is perceived to be a bad thing. Independent schools provide a royal road to privilege and opportunity denied to those who cannot afford £30,000 a year – the average price of a boarding school education, or £16,500 a year – the average price for a day-school education. The Sutton Trust, the strongest advocate for the power of education in creating social mobility, continues, quite rightly, to draw attention to the unfair over-representation of independent school products in all aspects of life, from the judiciary to playing cricket for England.
However, it wasn’t always like this.
In 1991, the Financial Times made the first, faltering steps to an independent school league table. It produced a boys’ school top 10 and, in that year, five of the top 10 were from the chilly lands that lie north of Oxford: King Edward’s School, Birmingham, Manchester Grammar School, RGS Newcastle, Leeds Grammar School and Bradford Grammar School. Those schools are nowhere to be seen in the top 10 these days. King Edward’s has a framed copy of this iconic document lurking in the Chief Master’s study. Why not, when you’re number one, beating Westminster and St Paul’s and Eton by a distance?
A league table constructed in 1981 or 1971 or 1961 would have told a very similar story. How could this be? Well, in those golden years these great independent day schools were accessible to the brightest, whatever their financial circumstances, through the Direct Grant system, abolished in 1979, and then through the Government Assisted Places scheme, abolished in 1997. There were decades when 80% of King Edward’s boys were there for free, many years when three-quarters of us applied to Oxford and Cambridge and half of that three-quarters got in: in the best years 40+ out of a hundred got places there and found Oxbridge populated by boys – and it was mainly boys – like ourselves. That was social mobility.
I know. I was there and I was on that train.
Those days will never return: no government will ever be able to persuade the world that giving money to educate children in independent schools could be a means to the noble end of social mobility. However, independent schools are doing more in funding their own education: in 2016 ISC schools spent £760m on scholarships and bursaries, providing for nearly 170,000 students, 33% of the pupil population. That is an increase of nearly 5% on the previous year. Some schools, boarding as well as day, have made this a central focus of their strategies. In the day- school sector Manchester Grammar School is the biggest beast, raising £30m since 1997 and providing for 35 boys each year. King Edward’s followed their lead and has raised £10.5m in the last eight years. Christ’s Hospital has been doing this for decades and Eton and Harrow and other major boarding schools are on the same road, although it’s harder when your fees are three times bigger.
However, there is more to be done, much more. The comfortable figures quoted above from ISC conceal a more important truth: it’s not 170,000 students that are on means-tested bursaries, it’s 40,000.
It’s not 33% of the student population that are on means-tested bursaries, it’s 7.7%. All schools have to do more in this area as a matter of urgent necessity. It’s not just to stave off a potentially hostile future government or the hounds of the Charity Commission. It’s because, in making our schools accessible to the brightest and best, we are not only diversifying but strengthening our intake; we are serving our communities; we are, in many cases, fulfilling our historic purpose; and we are, as best we can, fulfilling the moral purpose that all teachers should share, of trying to make the world a better, fairer place.
For more information, visit IBSCA’s website.