The main reason that parents choose an independent education for their sons and daughters is excellent academic results; at least, this is what research shows.
There are undoubtedly many other reasons. On a recent trip to China, I was informed that parents there also value academic success most, closely followed by safety and security in schools. Many, but by no means all, parents choosing the private sector will have been educated in it themselves so that the pathway becomes an inevitable choice for their children; the same financial sacrifices made by their parents will see that their children have a similar privilege. But what is it that might persuade parents in these difficult economic times, to invest financially in what they could just receive for ‘free’ (through taxation, of course, as nothing is ever completely free), especially if ‘first-time buyers’?
The press seems full of tales of the impending doom that faces our education system. Buildings in disrepair, increasing class sizes, cuts to the arts subjects, removal of after-school clubs, physical inactivity, teachers leaving the profession after just a few years and headteacher shortages have all featured prominently. It is worrying, too, that in some schools up and down the country, parents are being asked to contribute to the coffers anyway, to make up for crippling shortfalls in funding. A mere £50 per month may seem good value, but an additional cost unimagined in the maintained sector a few years ago.
Why too is the government so set on inviting the independent sector to support state schools, through the setting up of grammars or academies, sharing facilities and teaching expertise, providing training or else risking forfeiting their charitable status? This has all been proposed in the government’s recent green paper: ‘Schools that work for everyone’. The independent sector is proud to be doing a whole host of things really well!
The independent sector has to make shrewd financial decisions too; the most costly of these to do with buildings and staffing usually. But independent education is not primarily about smaller class sizes and greater facilities, although in many the teacher:pupil ratios are very favourable and the environs are spectacular. There is a strong and intentional emphasis on the whole child. Teachers invest as much time as it takes to support pupil well-being, health, happiness, relationships, wider interests and academic success. In classrooms, the levels of challenge are set to ensure that each pupil makes progress, with motivation and a love of learning being key factors and the norm. Learning support is very joined up: in my school, all the teachers meet every week to share information about any girl who is not making the progress they ought. Not only are their difficulties discussed, but any friendship, home or other circumstances raised that might be complicating or distracting them from doing their best. We look for solutions and work very closely in partnership with home to work out the best way forwards. Medical and counselling services are available on site and classrooms are truly warm and welcoming places. Interests are encouraged and every success, no matter how small, is celebrated.
Focus on each individual is achieved through attention to even the smallest things. Recently when a child lost her pet hamster, the class held a special talk about how best to support her. At a cake sale, some girls baked gluten- and dairy-free delicacies so that everybody could enjoy a special treat, whilst helping to raise money for charity. The girls are excellent at thinking about others. As I stand on the school drive each morning to greet students and to chat openly to parents about all manner of issues, I observe. I see older girls offering to help the smaller ones with their sports kit bags. I see friends taking each other by the hand to comfort, reassure and be close.
I see spontaneous bursts of singing to celebrate a birthday. I have girls rushing up to me to show me some interesting fact they have discovered or original project they have completed. Of course, occasionally a girl is spotted with some other uniform irregularity or other: but I only need to glance their way and they come over to explain why! There is a smartness about the place, driven by a fierce sense of pride in belonging to such a vibrant learning community.
When we show visitors around the school, I often ask the girls, “What is the best thing about Farlington?” I then ban them from saying, “Everything” as their stock answer. Recounting tales of what it was like when they joined the school, they mention friendships, kindness towards them, the fun in learning and always how helpful the teachers are. They not only know but also feel that everybody matters and that no problem is too small to be tackled.
Independent education is a personal choice. It involves a financial commitment. Nowadays, it is not elitist or out of reach of middle earners. With bursary support often available, as well as scholarship entry, there really is no better time to visit independent schools to see what well-rounded, community-spirited, aspirational and talented young people are blossoming in the sector.