Independent schools - myth and reality

Alistair Lexden is President of the Independent Schools Association (ISA), which works on behalf of some 530 smaller independent schools and represents their interests in public debate. The following article will be published in the next issue of the ISA Journal . It includes the case for introducing an open access scheme to independent schools, on which he worked when he was General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council ,to which the ISA belongs, between 1997 and 2004.


2019 was a year in which the  enemies of independent schools rejoiced. Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party committed itself to abolishing the institutions that they had detested for so long, bowing to their blind, unthinking prejudices. Elsewhere few appeared to be greatly impressed. It was heartening to see how widely the new commitment was condemned beyond the ranks of the Labour Party faithful. It seemed much more likely to cost  Mr Corbyn votes than to bring him new supporters in significant numbers. That was the message from the opinion polls. There was another very useful result too. It brought independent education into much greater prominence in public debate.

We should relish the increased attention and do all we can to enlarge it. Ignorance about what independent schools  are really like today assists our opponents. They love to perpetuate the myth that independent schools are all of one type, with Eton and Harrow being the best-known examples of it. People are encouraged to believe that huge expense and social exclusiveness are to be found everywhere throughout the  sector, separating children educated in it from their contemporaries in state schools for life. In the 1840s Disraeli famously wrote of “ two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets.” Independent schools stand accused of sustaining “ two nations” in Britain today. Even commentators who are otherwise reasonably balanced fall for this line. One wrote recently in The Times: “ I have much sympathy with the desire to destroy institutions that entrench privilege.”

ISA is extraordinarily well placed to provide the evidence by which this nonsense can finally be laid to rest. Its 530 member schools now represent nearly half the total belonging to the ISC associations. There is more to be learnt from them about the true character of independent schools today than from anywhere else. I doubt if any pupil in any ISA school considers himself or herself socially a cut above a maintained school contemporary. Friendships are not inhibited by some educational equivalent of the Berlin Wall, as even Michael Gove when Education Secretary liked to imagine.

No one in  ISA has ever taken Eton, Harrow or any other of the small band of grand “ public schools” as a model. Our traditions are very different. The average ISA school has just under 220 pupils. It is deeply rooted in its local community, playing its part in local projects and  voluntary services. State schools are not  shunned, but treated as equals in academic and non-academic partnership work that suits both sides. Fees will be kept as low as possible. In some ISA day schools they are at a level similar to the average cost of a place in the maintained sector. Leaders in special needs and the performing arts are to be found in it. How absurd it is for commentators in the media and elsewhere to lump all  independent schools together, branding them as aloof, expensive and exclusive when the reality of life in ISA schools  with their rich diversity of provision so clearly contradicts this caricature.

Everyone in ISA knows this. It will always be an uphill struggle to get others to understand it. I constantly look for opportunities in my current place of work. I make use of first-hand accounts sent to me by ISA heads, so many of them now personal friends, in debates in the Lords. It is interesting to see stock prejudices crumble in the face of descriptions of life in our schools, such as  the following :“young people from diverse nations and cultures share the adventure of learning together ,and will be less likely as adults to engage in discriminatory prejudice” ; and “ operating in a highly selective 11+ area with four huge grammar schools, we educate many pupils who did not get into them but would not thrive in a large comprehensive”; and “ the vast majority of pupils come from families who would never would have thought they would ever send their children to a private school; around 40 per cent of our pupils do not pay full fees.” I shall be seeking to instigate another debate on the diverse character of ISA schools in the current session of Parliament. Mrs Thatcher used to say, “always remember: the truth has to be repeated over and over again.” It was one of  the secrets of her success.

It is extremely galling for schools, particularly those in ISA, to be lectured about social inclusiveness when they are doing so much to promote it themselves through fee reductions and ever increasing means-tested bursaries. Really dramatic change awaits  a fair and enduring partnership with government. There have been some notable lost opportunities in the past. Ruminating privately about the shape of the post-war world in 1942, Winston Churchill said he “ wanted 60 to 70 per cent of the places[at boarding schools] to be filled by bursaries, not by examination alone but on the recommendation of the counties and the great cities.” But instead of a properly funded comprehensive national scheme, everything was left to local authorities, some of whom did great work while others did nothing. Since the Seventies, this route to places at independent schools has been virtually closed, though valiant efforts are now being made to reopen it for children in care.

Meanwhile, hugely valuable national government initiatives, the direct grant scheme and the assisted places scheme, have come and gone. Can a bold new initiative to make our schools as socially inclusive as so many heads would like be devised and gain cross-party support, which is vital to guarantee its survival when governments change? Our schools have been making suggestions for years. As General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council, I sent Tony Blair’s government proposals for an open access scheme in 2001. One of its fundamental principles was it would involve that no greater government expenditure per pupil than was available in the state sector. Another was that pupils of a wide range of abilities and aptitudes from families in financial need must be the principal beneficiaries. I wrote at the time: “ the interests of parental choice and of a more united education service for the nation’s children demand serious consideration of a scheme which is equitable in its use of public funds and offers real opportunities to the participating schools and, above all, to the children who will benefit from it.”

A proposal based on the same underlying principles has now been put to this  government by the ISC on behalf of member schools. It offers to make up to 10,000 places a year available at a cost no greater than the state pays in the maintained sector. Other ideas for state partnership with independent schools have long been advocated by Sir Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust, though they single out the brightest children for special attention instead of focusing on the increased  social mobility to which so many in ISA schools are committed. While Mrs May was in power, there was no likelihood of progress. I remember going to see her when she was Conservative Shadow Education Secretary at the time of the 2001 general election. I have never had a more unproductive conversation. She had virtually nothing to say about the open access proposals, or indeed about anything else. I thought at the time that it did not augur well for her future in national politics, and as events proved I was not wrong.

Open access is a noble concept. It would transform the life chances of thousands of children. Will it ever be put in effect? One of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite sayings was that “in politics the unexpected always happens.”