Senior politicians are peddling “ignorant” myths about private schools and creating false barriers between the independent and state education system, the former headmaster of Harrow has warned.
Barnaby Lenon said ministers and education quangos used “lazy” stereotypes to describe fee-paying schools that bore little resemblance to reality.
In an interview with the Telegraph, he insisted it was wrong to use private education as a “proxy for privilege” because it failed to acknowledge that children from wealthy homes attend state schools and many poor pupils get subsidised places in the fee-paying sector.
Mr Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, warned that existing distinctions between state and private education were “no longer valid”.
The comments follow the publication of a major study by the Government’s Higher Education Funding Council for England that suggested state school students outperformed their private sector counterparts after being admitted to university with the same A-level grades.
It has been used to justify the use of targets by top universities to recruit more state-educated pupils.
An analysis by the Telegraph shows that 11 out of 20 English members of the elite Russell Group want to increase admissions from state schools over the next five years. This includes Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, King’s College London, the London School of Economics and Warwick. But Mr Lenon, who is also chairman of governors at the London Academy of Excellence, a state-funded college in east London, said: “The language and classification systems that are used are concealing more than they reveal. “Within this group called ‘state’ and within this group called ‘independent’, there is as much variation as there is between them. It is just an unhelpful classification. “It is often used as a lazy surrogate for rich and poor, which is wrong. There are plenty of well-off families sending children to state schools and plenty of children from low-income backgrounds on bursaries in independent schools.“It’s historical rhetoric which they would do well to move beyond.” Oxford currently refuses to set a state school target, he said, because a third of its students receiving bursary support are former pupils of independent schools.
“To use the term independent school as a proxy for privilege is a mistake,” he said. “It is a lazy measure.” Last year, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, criticised Britain’s leading independent schools for living in “isolation” instead of helping pupils from families that cannot afford the fees.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has also talked of a “Berlin Wall” between the state and independent sector.
But Mr Lenon, who retired from Harrow in 2011, insisted the relationship between the two sectors had never been stronger.
Nine-in-10 independent schools are currently involved in formal partnerships with neighbouring state schools – sharing facilities, teachers and taking part in joint pupil projects, he said.
“These false and naïve comparisons are out of touch with the reality on the ground,” he said. “Most of the time it amounts to little more than politically-motivated troublemaking.
“It is rather ignorant of the close and growing relationship between independent and state schools. It is rather annoying and offensive to the many teachers – not least heads – who are involved in these partnerships.”
The comments were made before a speech to a schools conference next week staged by The Spectator magazine about the lessons state schools can learn from the independent sector.