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Roland Martin - Issue #17

The end of the world as we know it?

Roland Martin

April 19 · Issue #17 · View online
Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

The end of the world as we know it?

One side of a story
Sally Williams’ article in The Sunday Times Magazine this weekend made for challenging reading.
Is this the end for private schools? | The Times
It would appear that the independent sector is at death’s door and the (tragic) closing of St Bees School, Cumbria was used as the leading case study to prove the point. The former Chair of Governors’ statement regarding the challenges that the school had faced, not least owing to its distant location, were - albeit respectfully - called into question with more headline-grabbing suggestions of ‘poor management’  being suggested.  
'Poor management’ that has apparently grown the numbers in that isolated school since 2012 seems more than a little paradoxical. It is unfortunate that the article did not consider what a difficult time the staff as well as the parents and pupils in that school experienced, not least a Head who had to  implement the Governors’ wishes. Most people would acknowledge that any Senior Leadership role can be isolating whether in Schools or in any other organisation; being Head of St Bees will have been as remote an experience as the geographical position of the school itself. Some of us will have experienced telling a school community bad news - the death of a pupil or staff member - truly awful moments. Telling pupils, staff and parents that a school is closing must also be numbingly difficult; who was supporting the messenger? 
It is unfortunate too, that the article did not mention that the Head worked tirelessly with parents to find places for the pupils at St Bees in other schools and that he similarly worked tirelessly to find jobs for his staff in other schools. It might not have been fashionable to explore this alternate view but it would have been more responsible to acknowledge it.
Opportunity for all
It is of course fashionable to knock the independent sector (in spite of a £9.5 billion contribution to the economy and a £3 billion saving to the taxpayer) and the scaremongering of journalists is tedious. Although it is true that there are plenty of independent schools facing financial challenge and that there are plenty of parents similarly facing financial challenge there is a great deal being done in independent schools to counter the challenges and to support pupils and parents. 
Albeit there was some mention of the Bursary support given by independent schools in the article, sufficient weighting was not accorded to this important area of what our schools do. In my early years of teaching in the independent sector, the Government funded Assisted Places Scheme was affording pupils across the country places in independent schools; by 1997 there were 34,000 pupils and 355 schools in this scheme. Without Government aid, by 2014, 166,000 out of 500,000 pupils, including a large number at St Bees, were benefiting from fee reduction in Independent Schools Council schools to the tune of £780 million.  Nicky Morgan might be promising ’to shape an education system which delivers opportunity for all’; the independent sector has certainly been tangibly delivering on that promise since the Government abolished Assisted Places.
'Foreign nationals'
Overseas students - interestingly termed ‘foreign’ which seems to declare a bias in itself - are discussed in some detail. It is certainly true that there are more international students in independent schools than there were in the 80s and 90s, though I would not argue that this is a bad thing. In the first instance, it reflects the success of the independent education system in this country which is world leading. It is not so much that it is a 'champagne brand’ but more that it is world class. Second, I would argue that the broad international range in independent schools should be celebrated rather than criticised: there are global networks being established in schools that will be fundamentally important for the next generation of leaders.
I suspect that in spite of the challenges, independent schools will be around for a while yet, in part because, like all enduring institutions - the Monarchy and The City of London Corporation being two - they will evolve. Because of the nature of the fact that they are independent, subject to some - but thankfully not to all - of the peccadilloes of each Government that has a whim to ‘tinker’ they are also likely to evolve more rapidly. 
For the record, there was in fact a 1% increase in the number of pupils in ISC schools given the published data in 2015, including significant rises in numbers in the North of England and Wales - data that might have been worth looking at before claiming that the end is nigh …
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