Mr Bennett’s Folly
Talking at Cambridge University recently, Alan Bennett has argued that private education is “not fair… and maybe not Christian either”. As the state-school educated headmaster of an independent school, I find his opinion to be at best naïve, and at worst ludicrous. What is “unfair” about hard-working families making significant sacrifices to send their children to a school of their choice?
The life of an independent school pupil is a rich and busy one, starting early, ending late and running long into the weekend. Good schools are about good people; pupils benefit from talented and committed teachers and enjoy wide-ranging and comprehensive co-curricular programmes. Even against significantly larger maintained schools, independent schools excel on the sports field, on the stage, in the debating chamber and in the concert hall, and education of the whole person is of paramount importance. Moreover, pupils never leave our schools; they join life-long, international alumni communities where camaraderie, loyalty and charity are highly valued.
I have worked in independent schools for nearly a quarter of a century, and I wish I had gone to a school like the one I lead today. My own school days bring back many fond memories, and I was inspired to read Economics at university by a particularly good teacher. However, I also recall trade union disruption, dilapidated facilities, equipment shortages, endless cover teachers and very little in the way of co-curricular activities. My old school has long since disappeared and the notion of an alumni community was, and still is, unheard of.
Would the loss of an independent sector cure this? Of course not. In fact, one must also consider the benefits to the Treasury of having pupils independently educated, and the impact on our GDP of the staff we employ and the entrepreneurs and citizens we create.
My current school, Solihull, upholds traditional values, emphasising the importance of high moral standards and ethical conduct. To say that choosing private education is not Christian or that independent schools are not Christian in their ethos couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, an important part of any independent school inspection is spiritual, moral, social and cultural provision – something we do very well indeed.
I also know that my school, along with others in the sector, works very hard to provide assisted places and scholarships to pupils who would not otherwise be able to attend. Fee remission in excess of 100% for families who struggle to afford the bus pass or hockey stick is not uncommon. Nor is it uncommon for alumni to go on to be pioneers and leaders in their chosen fields - these qualities are honed at school. The roles of prefect, captain, mentor, buddy, listener, councillor and many more help to develop leadership skills and a strong moral compass.
Individuality and inclusivity permeate all aspects of school life and leaders lead with humility, compassion and integrity.
Independent schools are, or should be, firmly rooted in their local communities. We provide specialist teachers to local schools free of charge; a local state secondary school uses our hall for concerts and prize giving; we run a number of outreach programmes. And recently, the Solihull School Choir sung for patients at a local hospice.
Don’t underestimate how difficult it was for young pupils to sing for the very sick and terminally ill; I was so proud of them and they were humbled by the experience.
Our pupils are acutely aware of privilege and while some come from very affluent backgrounds, many families face difficult decisions when choosing to pay their school fees. Mums and dads work hard, save hard and forego other things to send their children here. How can this choice be unfair? How can those making these decisions be wrong? Why should the State deny parents and their children this option?
What is wrong is the restriction of choice by the Government. Therefore, if Mr Bennett wants to be of use, then I suggest he lobby Mr Gove about the errant aspects of the state sector rather than misjudging his tackle on independent schools.