Our sector’s wake-up call

Gareth Doodes, headmaster of Dover College, responds to Labour’s plans to integrate independent schools into the state sector

I think that every leader of an independent school felt deep concern hearing of Labour’s policy to integrate independent schools into the maintained sector. It was a shocking attack following mounting pressure over a number of years.

Many will say that the move is about equality. Others will say it is Momentum launching its long-awaited class war against what it sees as the elite. A few in the sector will blame the sector itself for not adapting to the economic climate, or undertaking an inter-school arms race by building facilities that are the envy of the world, but which others view as denying financial aid to those who need it most.

The whole language of the debate around independent education disappoints me. Every time private schools appear in the media, photos of white, bow tie-wearing pupils accompany the copy, gowns flowing as they walk into Eton. If a former independent school pupil commits a crime, it is the first thing mentioned in a news report.

Despite all of this, we need to collectively re-fashion the narrative and use the Labour Party vote as a wake-up call for the independent sector.

If a Labour government doesn’t give us time to adapt and develop, the state will have to find spaces for 600,000 pupils

Dig beneath the headlines and you will find an arm of the UK’s education provision that is revered around the word. You will find hundreds of schools that are all different, run by heads who have the authority to choose the curriculum that best suits the pupils, with pastoral systems and sports programmes designed to encourage confidence, resilience and wellbeing.

Dig further and move away from the most famous and largest independent schools, and you’ll find schools like mine that rarely make a surplus. These schools also subsidise pupils through financial support. Dover College currently allocates 12.5% of its total income to supporting pupils who would otherwise not be able to attend the school, going out of its way to adhere to the charitable objectives of its founders.

Move away from the most famous and largest independent schools, and you’ll find schools like mine that rarely make a surplus

Our schools also have a very different purpose from many in the maintained sector. Dover College, for example, has a historic place in our town’s history. Founded by a former mayor in 1871, it still adheres to its mission to educate local children, but is not a grammar school and doesn’t have the same entrance requirements of some schools.

Its focus on academic rigour, community and love makes it worth fighting for. In addition, it adds to the local community, paying in excess of £800,000 in PAYE contributions a year, adding £3.7m to the local economy and saving the government £1.26m by day pupils not taking up places at local schools.

“There is more to lose, both for the fabric of society and financially, should a stereotype eclipse the reality of our sector”

Don’t get me wrong. Some schools do seem elitist. And the case for independent education isn’t helped by Boris Johnson’s questionable moral compass and difficulty with the truth, or Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging on the front bench of the House of Commons, looking like a man who has combined a liquid lunch with a large double-helping of well-roasted entitlement.

But these former pupils do not represent the 600,000 pupils currently enjoying independent education. The vast majority of these children’s parents are not aristocrats. Many of my school’s parents make enormous sacrifices to send their children here, which we try to support with financial aid.

If a Labour government doesn’t give us time to adapt and develop, and immediately introduces extreme measures against independent schools, the state will have to find spaces for 600,000 pupils and cough up the extra £3.5bn a year to pay for it all.

There is more to lose, both for the fabric of society and financially, should a stereotype eclipse the reality of our sector. It is important to remind ourselves, and our critics, of the missions of our schools. Above all, as we face criticism from many quarters, we need to celebrate the enormous contribution our sector makes to the United Kingdom and the wider world.


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