Never shy to put our hands up in class...
...today's proposals by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) gave us, and the government, some food for thought.
From Eton’s foundation to “to provide free education to 70 poor boys” to Lawrence Sheriff, purveyor of spices to Queen Elizabeth I (Lord Sainsbury, please note) opening “a Free Grammar School for the boys of Rugby and Brownsover”, there has always been a strong connection between independent schools and the education of the poor.
But somewhere along the way, the government undertook the education of the nation and the private schools became just that, private. Their charitable status however, and the tax benefits that go alongside this bring their broader responsibilities into focus.
The first of the ISC’s three proposals today is pretty simple. The government spends £5550 per pupil on education and if that money goes directly to the school where the child is being educated (a bit like the Free School Meals funding) then they, the independent schools, would be happy to educate many more children from low-income families who would not have to pay fees which in normal circumstances cost parents anywhere from £10,000 to £30,000+ per year.
We’re interested in the idea, but we have a few questions:
What is the impact on the state sector of losing £55m from its budget?
That sounds like a lot of money to us. But let’s look at it the other way. If all of those families currently educating their children privately suddenly decided to avail themselves of the state sector, the cost to the state would be almost £3 billion. It’s certainly in the state’s interest to work with the private sector, not against it.
What is the impact on the state sector of losing 10,000 pupils from its roll-call?
According to the headlines, we face a shortfall of primary school places over the next four years. Money is one problem, but physical places are another. The ISC’s proposition might be considered by some as a bit of a lifeline.
Where are the places to be offered?
Independent secondary schools have been offering places to low-income pupils since their inception, but what of primary education? We’d like to see places offered to pupils early in their education when smaller class sizes and more tailored education can ensure pupils are prepared to make the best of their secondary education, wherever that may be.
How will low-income pupils learn about this option?
Today is a fantastic headline grabbing start, which we applaud. We hope that parents may put the scheme on their radars, even at this potential stage. From visiting independent schools quietly expanding their bursary provision already, we feel communication about these opportunities should not be so "hush, hush" or equality of opportunity is lost again...it becomes confined to those who are in a position to hear about such things. If we had not been persistently researching and visiting schools as consultants, we would not have known about opportunities under our own noses.
Who will be offered places?
At present, understandably, independent schools’ want to make sure those in receipt of bursary places are “worthy” of the bursary. It’s a great deal of money! Bursaries are not scholarships, but they are the golden ticket and much sought after. It won’t benefit pupil or school for less academic pupils to be awarded unconditional places in highly academic schools, but will this allow schools to cherry pick from the state sector?
What will happen to low-income SEN pupils?
This is something we feel passionately about. Children who have great potential, who would benefit from the specialist teaching, excellent SEN support and smaller class sizes that can often be found more plentifully in the private sector, will often not perform well in entrance testing, despite having much to offer.
And what of the squeezed middle?
Scholarships at most schools are now nominal so for some it feels that independent education is increasingly accessible only to the poor or the wealthy. We see court cases on the horizon from parents for whom private education is currently out of reach, but would be accessible with an annual top up of £5550.
The rights and wrongs of this are to debate elsewhere, but politically this may be too much of a hot potato for any government.
We hope you enjoy our musings on the blog, but if you'd like to join in the conversation DAILY, you'll find us over @schoolhuntersuk. We look forward to seeing you there.