The secretary of FIDS spoke at a recent Westminster Education Forum.
“There is such a great variety of independent schools that it is very difficult to comment generally on behalf of all. Age range, style, admissions, boarding – each school is very diverse. My sector is the day school sector -locally based, traditional, former grammar schools, with generally lower fees and little income other than through those fees. We were formerly part of the state system as direct grant schools, and therefore had to go through many of the adaptations other schools are going through today: we can share a great deal of that experience and have offered to do so. We became businesses, rather unwillingly, but in general rejoiced in the freedoms that independence brought. We are still charities – therefore we have no shareholders and all money has to be ploughed back into the schools. We have had to learn how to manage and maintain buildings, contracts, fees, suppliers and the like. We have had to respond to national curriculum but adapt our curriculum to it. We found ourselves having to stand for the defence of that indefinable term ‘ standards’ and also respond to the market. It is wrong to think that being an independent school has meant you could do what you wanted : we needed to respond to parents, children and our local community very positively or else we died. Accountability via governors is increasing in importance, and the overall school’s aims and standards are regularly internally inspected. Accountability has meant a great deal to us in a very rounded sense. The Inspection system has become important to all – and is generally considered positive, especially because many of the inspectors are still working within the system itself. We have been able to learn from one another. We have had to keep control of fees, or quite simply we get no customers – especially when you are our type of school which wanted to maintain a good social mix. This is becoming increasingly difficult because of inflation so we have had to take care with what we provide. Initially there was a tendency to become conservative in curriculum and methods, but as we grew in confidence, experimentation also grew and we tended to be able to be in the forefront of tackling major issues with government eg the pressure to reform A levels positively. We share the fears of over-centralisation and control with other colleagues in the educational system, and want to concentrate on giving time to teach. We also say to Government -do not change things so much, so regularly and so drastically. We have put a great deal of work into getting, retaining and equipping high quality staff.
We want to be left alone to get on with the job, but are aware that isolation is a big issue. We are very supportive of one another, and there is only competition in some areas ( eg London). My group of schools wants to look for positive ways to work with the local area, rather than be in splendid isolation, because we can learn so much from one another. We do not believe that the independent schools have all the answers! Our desire to help social mobility is great, but politicians generally are scared of having positive discussions with us to avoid being seen as cosying up to what the press call ‘posh schools’. However, there is a real danger of us becoming ‘ gated educational communities’ if fees continue to rise, and bursaries cannot plug the gap.
The independent sector wants to engage, and does so in a variety of ways already. Government wants it to do more eg sponsoring academies. Some can, but most can’t – there is a great deal of suspicion to overcome, and any such partnerships have to be mutually beneficial. The option of the State accessing places in independent schools seems to be off the table politically – but it would be more cost effective than financing free schools and more constructive overall to building consensus.
What we want to do is to discuss various options of working with other schools in areas to further educational advance to the community’s benefit and with fewer strait jackets from the centre. We are happy to discuss local arrangements of working together and provide different opportunities, working collaboratively rather than competitively. Local schemes and partnerships work very effectively and quietly, but we need people with a bigger, less prejudiced and less historically blinkered view to push forward the agenda. Thank you for including the independent schools in this forum debate, because we want to be part of the solution and not a problem. “