PRIVATE SCHOOLS- UNDER SERIOUS THREAT?
Lord Adonis, the former Labour education minister, was asked to comment last month on the conversion of Liverpool Academy from a private school to a free school. He was quoted by the Independent as predicting that ‘within a couple of decades, as fee-paying schools become virtually extinct, people might look back and wonder why Britain ever had such a divisive system of education’. Adonis has been a trenchant critic of the widening attainment gap between the state and independent sectors and believes that private schools have a moral duty to work more closely with independent schools and get back to their charitable roots in order to address this.. He also rightly worries that isolation from mainstream pupils hardly assists these schools in delivering a rounded education, which is one of their selling points. He also sought, through the academies scheme ,to transfer some of the DNA from independent schools to the maintained sector.
But could he be right about the extinction of private schools ?
The Blog ‘Marketing Advice for schools’ claims that there ‘ is some evidence that private schools are finding it hard and converting to free schools. Two other high profile examples are QEGS Blackburn and Kings Tynemouth. Other schools have closed and consolidated under economic pressure’.
But this does not necessarily herald the imminent decline of private schools. The credit crunch and escalating salaries and pensions were supposed to squeeze independent schools .Certainly there has been a marginal decline in numbers attending private schools. But if you drill down into the number The TES reports that only 9 private schools have become free schools. The Independent School Census (2013) shows the number of pupils in 1,200 UK private schools has dropped by only 0.3% this year and there are 9% more private school pupils that there were in 1996. A separate survey by the ISC (Attitudes Towards Independent Schools (2012)) showed that the percentage of people who would send their children to private school if they could afford it has reached the highest level seen – 57%.
Why is this, despite the massive investment by Labour into schools and the hard work of state school teachers? Here are three reasons given by Marketing Advice for Schools
1. Parents are encouraged to choose: Labour encouraged parents to look around and this has continued under Michael Gove. However, it has also paradoxically made many parents critically appraise the offerings of state schools, and realise they may not get into the ‘best’ state schools. As parents spend more time looking they start considering the private sector.
2. Parents want small class sizes and individual attention: When parents are asked why they want to send their children to private schools, research shows that what they most want are small class sizes and individual attention for their children (even if this is found to be a relatively poor way of improving overall achievement). Successful, over-subscribed state schools almost always have Y7 classes of 30 and most have tutor groups of the same size. Many private school parents I’ve met feared their children would be ‘lost’ in state schools.
3. Private schools are better at marketing. Teaching may be better in state schools. State school pupils may do better at university. Some private schools may just be exam factories. But the best private schools spend time and money creating the stories that resonate with parents and communicating with them. The gap may close in the future as faced with greater competition, state schools (and especially academy chains) improve their marketing and attract more parents and students, but is isn’t likely to disappear.
I would add another two points. There is a shortage of capacity in the state sector, particularly at the Primary level. Some Parents who otherwise might not have looked at the private sector may now be thinking they have to. Secondly, the top elite independent schools are significantly over-subscribed ie in some, there are three or four applicants going for each place and the demand from overseas ,particularly the Far East has actually risen. Some schools could actually fill their first year intake with Chinese students, if they so wished. This demand is likely to continue for a few years as the Chinese middle class expands. (And schools will be hoping that rich Chinese alumni might help invest in their schools future.) The biggest pressure on private schools will be if more state schools can raise their game and deliver a good rounded education to their children. If the achievement gap narrows then private schools will be looking over their shoulders. But Lord Adonis’ prediction that the independent sector may die within twenty years looks far-fetched. And the big change over the next twenty years is more likely to be a significant increase in the number of overseas pupils, as schools respond to demand and pursue fee income.
The challenge though will remain for independent schools to control their costs and to differentiate their offers, in a market that will become more rather than less competitive. Although the sector will almost certainly survive there will be those that fail to adapt, fail to innovate and fail to demonstrate that they deliver value for money to increasingly well informed parents. Some of the smaller, less well endowed schools will fall by the wayside or seek refuge in the state sector.
Professor Dylan Wiliam says that there is no evidence that the independent sector has better teachers than the maintained sector nor do the sectors teachers achieve better outcomes for their pupils , than those in the maintained sector once ,that is ,you take into account pupils socio-economic backgrounds.