Affordable independent schools

(First published in the Autumn Newsletter for the CRE)

The latest news from the Independent Grammar School, a new affordable independent school in Durham reads as follows:

“We have been delighted that, without advertising as such, we have had almost 100 expressions of interest.  That confirms our view that there is a real demand for the kind of school we are proposing, and that we are likely to have more than enough children to make the school viable.”

IGS Durham offers a “no frills” independent school education to families who could not otherwise afford one, using “fresh, new teachers” in “unpretentious” facilities for £52 per week (£2,700 per year). Why are poor parents drawn to it when they can educate their children in schools with better facilities, more experienced teachers, for free?

The reasons are likely to be the same reasons a majority say they would choose an independent school over a state school if they could afford it.

The education of the individual child, rather than the education of a cohort – be it class, year group, school or local authority – is the animating principle of independent education.

State school pupils, in contrast, are confined to tabulated data sets in order that their ‘progress’ can be measured as a cohort. Schools are motivated more by an average lift in scores across these cohorts than they are by educating an individual child. This difference in emphasis, not always immediately obvious to parents new to the systems, underpins five key characteristics of independent schools:

  1. Behaviour.

State schools tend to measure bad behaviour by cohort targets, such as whether the number of exclusions or truancies has risen or fallen, rather than think about the effect of bad behaviour on individual children. Bad behaviour is frequently cited (e.g. by the Independent Schools Council) as a top reason why parents choose the independent sector. And low-level classroom disruption is also frequently cited by stressed out state schoolteachers as their reason for leaving the profession.

  1. High standards.

Because of their focus on the one rather than on the many, an independent school teacher is more likely to ask, “How can I stretch this pupil as far as he or she is able to go?” than “How can I ensure that as many of my class as possible get a grade C/level 4 at GCSE?”

  1. Pastoral care and growth of the whole person.

For the same reasons, good independent schools do not just focus on the borderline ‘pass’/’fail’ pupils in order to boost the pass rate of a cohort. They are much more likely to ensure that all pupils receive equal attention in all areas, both academic and non-academic. From this flows a genuine commitment to extracurricular activities and the development of confidence-building interpersonal skills such as public speaking.

  1. Curriculum.

“All children will be asked to learn nursery rhymes and poems”, IGS Durham promises. “ Things that, once learned in primary school, may well remain with them for life.” An education rooted in individual growth understands the richness that a broad curriculum can bring. Independent schools seek to offer History, Geography, Foreign Languages and so on because they are valuable in themselves, not because they are the prescribed outputs of the National Curriculum.

  1. Sense over nonsense

The easiest policy answer to any mental/social health scare is to make changes to the National Curriculum. State school children are now forced to learn a welter of “politicised” information pertaining more to their lifestyles (usually around sex, identity, gender, sustainable living etc) than their knowledge of a subject. Independent schools, freer from the state’s imperatives to prioritise such issues, can choose more judiciously – most of the time, choosing common sense over nonsense.

One of the most compelling advantages of a state school is that it is usually local, embedded in the life of a community, allowing children to make local friends from a variety of backgrounds. It is early days yet but if schools like IGS Durham can bring localism and diversity to the private sector, combining their offer with independent school levels of communication with that community, such affordable schools could begin to challenge the state sector up and down the country.

PS In a recent development, it seems as though a simlarly-inspired school will start in Edinburgh too: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15610509.Ex_CBI_chief_s_backing_for___52_a_week_Scots_private_schools

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