‘Private schools are competing against the highest performing state schools – and often winning. This is nothing new’ – Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council

29 Apr 2016

Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon

The chair of the Independent Schools Council, a former head of Harrow School, hits back against the idea that the private sector is losing ground
We should not be surprised when Lord Lucas, owner of The Good Schools Guide, seeks publicity for his book. There is a superfluity of such guides and many are given away free with magazines. No, what is surprising is that when this Old Etonian states that there are now some good state schools, the media falls over itself to report him.

So what’s going on here? What’s going on is that Lord Lucas was for years ignorant of the fact that there are high-achieving state schools in England. Many are highly selective grammar schools in prosperous areas and their A-level results have always been good. So well done, Good Schools Guide, for spotting this – at last.

Independent schools have always faced competition from grammar schools. Some know that a good proportion of the pupils they take have been rejected by grammar schools at 11-plus. These independent schools take pride in the fact that their A-level results are often better than the grammar schools nearby. In the Department for Education’s 2015 league table of A-level points per exam, independent schools occupied 84 of the top 100 places. Last year a third of independent school GCSE entries were awarded an A* compared with 7 per cent nationally.

This would be less impressive if fee-charging schools were very selective academically – but most are not, unlike the grammar schools that select at 11 and at 16.

A high proportion of entries for the International Baccalaureate, the Pre-U and IGCSEs are from independent schools. Schools which have chosen these alternative qualifications did so because they were more demanding than GCSEs and A-levels and thus a better offer for able pupils. Lord Lucas’ claim that independent schools are becoming “conformist” is utter nonsense.

One more gripe: newspapers and schools’ guides nearly always judge schools by their raw results. We all know that parents should be more interested in the exam value-added score – a truer measure of the impact of teaching.

Independent schools have been working with state schools for some years in partnership activities. We do not regard this as a zero-sum game – all schools, state and private, can improve over time. Independent schools have the big advantage of greater spending per pupil, state schools have the advantage that they charge no fees and, if successful, can attract thousands of applicants a year. I am chairman of governors of the London Academy of Excellence, a great state school in East London backed by six top independent schools. We believe in providing a good education for all children, whatever their financial position.

Independent schools ‘on the rise’
Independent school numbers have risen, not fallen, during the recession. Our results and university entry have never been better. Our contribution to the nation’s sport can be measured by the number of our former pupils in the current England rugby and cricket teams.

A third of pupils at Independent Schools Council schools are on a reduced fee, and bursary funds continue to grow. And as 40 per cent of our pupils have parents who did not themselves go to an independent school, this is not about the perpetuation of a small elite. These schools are a path to social mobility.

Some 29 per cent of pupils at independent schools are from a minority ethnic background – more than in the state sector. In many independent schools in London and Birmingham, the majority of pupils are non-white and their schools are providing them with the ladder to prosperity their parents or grandparents envisaged and hoped for when they came to this country.

Many good state schools are costing parents more than they might pay to go to a fee-charging school because house prices in the local area are so inflated. A supplement of The Times newspaper, Bricks & Mortar, recently reported that £500,000 is not an unusual premium for proximity to a good state school. Savills Research reported that in the area around Altrincham Grammar School for Girls in Cheshire, houses cost 223 per cent more than similar houses further from the school. Rapidly rising property prices mean that good state schools are often less affordable than independent schools.

Lord Lucas may have the feeling that our numbers will fall over the next 50 years, but then that was the assumption back in the 1960s; an assumption reinforced in the 1970s by the abolition of the direct grant on which so many independent schools depended.

The fact that our numbers actually grew suggests he might be wrong to write us off too quickly.


This article appeared in the TES, February 2016