Sally Weber-Spokes is Head of Yarrells School and Nursery, an independent preparatory school in Dorset, writes…
I have been listening to the rhetoric of the Labour Party with increasing discomfort over recent weeks. Their opinions have grown in vigour and volume, and if taken as fact, would suggest that all schools in the independent sector are playgrounds for the rich and privileged, filled with ‘posh toffs’ who have no grounding in the real world and, therefore, no sense of their place in society.
It’s a convenient position from which to posture. However, the shadow cabinet’s rhetoric hides the reality that far from throwing their millions around, real parents make significant financial sacrifices to send their children to independent schools. It also hides the far more serious issue of under-funding in state schools across the country. No matter how one spins it, that situation cannot and should not be laid at the feet of the independent sector. Any statement suggesting that abolishing independent schools would solve the funding crisis in state education is spurious and unfortunately is a statement that carries a good amount of emotional sway, but less tangible benefit.
I am not suggesting that the existence of independent schools has no impact on wider society. The impact is evident; maybe in part negative, but predominantly positive. There is much to celebrate about the existence of the independent education system, its autonomy, breadth of curriculum, and its care and enrichment of young people being three immediate examples, but there is also room for improvement whereby equality of opportunity is afforded to a greater number of children in Britain whose families’ financial means would not ordinarily stretch to a fee-paying school place. Focusing on this as an aim rather than focusing on the abolition of the system would benefit more children more immediately.
I have been a Head in the independent sector for a number of years. Having worked in both state and independent schools for over twenty years, I believe I am in a good position to make effective comparisons. I choose to work in my sector because I have the autonomy and flexibility to decide upon curriculum content and the allocation of time given to certain disciplines. As a Head, I can decide that, as well as English, maths and science, the subjects of art, computing, critical thinking, dance, drama, foreign languages, music, outdoor education, philosophy for children and sport are vital components of an enriching curriculum for young people. I will not falter from that commitment. I will not cut subjects because my finances are stretched.
That is not because my school is rolling in money and I have the luxury of affording whatever we want whenever we want it. We do not have vast endowment funds into which we can dip when we need roof repairs, new whiteboards, a sports hall, new technology, a mini-bus, new textbooks etc. It is a constant juggling act of affordability for parents versus need in the school. The school I run is proprietary, therefore we do not hold charitable status. We pay business rates. High business rates. We keep our fees as low as possible in order to make our school affordable for our parents. Any profit we make is invested back into the school, for the children. My staff are paid just in line with their state sector counterparts. That is the reality.
The families whose children come to my school are not entitled, arrogant or privileged. They work hard to make the financial stretch for their children because their belief about educational provision resonates with mine. They will sometimes be holding three or four jobs down between them in order to find the fees. Grandparents will often be involved in paying fees from their hard-earned savings. These are not fantastical statements I am making simply to illustrate my point. These are realities. A good number of meetings I hold each week are based around affordability for parents. They choose to forego family holidays or a new kitchen because they choose to allocate that money to pay fees for their child’s schooling.
The Labour Party talks about privilege; its MPs articulate that independent schools are like country clubs for the young. These politicians are painting a warped picture and it both irritates and upsets me. The children in my school know their sense of responsibility in society; they look outward, wishing to serve their community. We engage in charitable events almost every week; we gather at the weekend for beach cleans; we sing at old people’s homes, make mince pies for the homeless in our local town, raise awareness of others’ plights; we march at school on the days of Climate Change Strikes. The young people I teach are absolutely grounded in the real world.
If you point the finger at the independent sector, you are missing the real point. Yes, financial privilege is a reality in our world and this country has an unequal education system, with incidentally, state grammar schools being part of that inequality. However, don’t believe the gargantuan proportions of the Labour Party’s argument. Abolition of the independent sector will cost the Government money within a few years. It will take away individual choice and autonomy.
Instead, the government of the day should fund state schools appropriately so their provision can be broad and full; this will allow passionate Head Teachers to reinstate music, drama, languages and sport in the curriculum. The Government of the day should continue to push the independent sector to be a broader church and, instead of offering scholarships to attract the ‘brightest and best’, force the sector to offer proper, means-tested bursaries only. This way, the branches of equality on the tree of opportunity would reach further more rapidly, and continue to grow.
Sally Weber-Spokes is Head of Yarrells School and Nursery, an independent preparatory school in Dorset.