Challenging the Stereotype; independent schools in Britain support social mobility and social equity

It sounds like an impossibility, because the media presentation of private schools is dominated by rich toffs wearing straw boaters or top hats, but the reality in modern Britain is that independent schools have become a positive force for good across the socio-economic spectrum.

In research for an MSc with Oxford University, I have looked into this question and spoken not only with the headmasters and headmistresses of some of Britain’s best-known independent schools, but also with leaders from state secondary schools across England. Without doubt, a child who has been educated at a leading private school has, in the past, been rewarded with enduring privilege. Many commentators would go on to claim that this privilege has been to the detriment of a wider social mobility agenda. My investigations revealed clear evidence, however, that modern practices in independent schools are increasing access for less-advantaged children and that these schools are increasingly sharing both facilities and teaching.

What has changed the most of all, according to the empirical research which I conducted via interviews and questionnaires is that former ideologies have melted away and a new generation of school leaders have brought a new determination to use education for the common good. Although some mutual mistrust continues to exist, I was able to reveal an increasing appetite for collaboration between the state and the independent sectors.

The latest census to emerge from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) shows that 85% of private schools now have partnerships with state schools. To put this into context, only 73% of ISC schools hold charitable status – this is up from just 40% as recently as 2003. The kind of partnerships which exist these days begin with sharing swimming pools, astroturfs and theatres, but extend to genuinely meaningful collaboration such as academic masterclasses, joint concerts, preparation of A level students for admissions interviews to Oxbridge colleges and support for difficult to teach subjects such as Further Maths, Latin, German, Drama and Physics. Amongst the larger, more established schools of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) 100% of schools have partnership projects which include offering transformational, life-changing bursaries to pupils who could never normally afford the fees of such a school.

When I asked what were the motivations for this apparent altruism, most headteachers referred back to the vision or the mission of their foundation. One, the headmaster of a large, provincial, day school, commented about a responsibility to be helpful in the wider community where his school has a regional significance in terms of its contribution to the economy as well as to the educational landscape. Another explained how times have changed since he first became a headteacher towards the end of the last century:

When I look back to how selfish 18 year olds were in the 1990s, I see a real change. The world has changed for the better and heads have changed too; they see their privileged positions and they have a social conscience which was simply not around twenty-five years ago.”

Amongst the headteachers of state schools in my research, a full 100% of the participants in a survey responded to say that they would be willing to participate in partnership with an independent school and 82% circled the subsequent answer to say that it is a desirable outcome that state schools and independent schools should work together.

The brightest light of hope from this study came from the participants themselves. If the results of my research are to be trusted, then it would seem that a new generation of headteachers has entered both the independent sector and the state-maintained sector in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, it seems that with their arrival in positions of leadership a new pragmatism is gaining ground. The mutual-wariness of decades gone by are receding on both sides and we are entering a period when educationalists are more prepared than ever to collaborate if that is in the best interests of their pupils.

My study revealed that there is willingness on both sides to work together to support minority subjects and specialist subjects. There is certainly a willingness to collaborate around learning and teaching, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and Initial Teacher Training (ITT). What is more, there is also a willingness to develop a partnership of equals where all involved are doing the best for the children in their care.

The most forward-looking contributors to this research are those who looked backwards to the reasons that their schools existed in the first place. Many independent schools were established with the needs of the poor in mind. Even as their school fees rise inexorably, I was afforded a rare insight to understand that is in the very DNA of these schools to have a heart for all of society.

Charlie Fillingham


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