Private, or Independent schools are a key feature of the British education system, attended by around 6% of children, the vast majority from the wealthiest families. In this post I explore some of the arguments and evidence for and against independent schools.
What are private schools?
Private (aka independent) schools are privately funded through fees or donations from parents or other donors, rather than being funded by the state through taxation. Independent schools do not have to follow the national curriculum like state schools.
Private schools are also known as Independent schools, and the two terms are usually used interchangeably, and I will use the two terms interchangeably in this post
Different types of Independent school
Independent schools exist for all ages of pupil – from prep-schools (infant schools) to secondary schools and 16-19 colleges. Some will specialize in one age group, others will have provision from 3 years to 19 years of age.
Somewhat confusingly ‘Public Schools’ such as Eton and Harrow are actually ‘private’ or ‘independent’ schools. Public schools are the ‘elite’ independent schools – they are the oldest and most well established independent schools and typically have annual fees of over £30 000 year per pupil.
The term ‘public’ school comes from 1868 when a group of seven elite boys boarding schools were granted independence from the state and the church and allowed to be run by groups of local governors, so they are really elite private schools.
Most independent schools are day schools, but some are boarding schools.
Independent Schools and State Schools: similarities and differences
Statistics on Private schools in the UK
- The main source for the states below is the 2019 Independent Schools Council 2019 survey of independent schools.
- 1,364 schools are members of the Independent Schools Council.
- In 2019 there were 536,109 pupils at ISC member schools, a record number of pupils.
- 6,169 pupils in ISC schools paid no fees at all, a figure which is increasing as a proportion of Independent school pupils but still only represents just over 1% of all pupils in independent schools.
- 33.8% are minority ethnic pupils, reflecting general population
- 84,293 pupils identified as having SEND, equating to 15.7% of all pupils, marginally higher than last year.
- The most common SEND is Specific Learning Difficulty (SPLD), which includes conditions such as dyslexia and dyspraxia and represents 57.5% of all SEND pupils in ISC schools.
- 5.4% of all pupils are foreign students, whose parents reside permanently abroad, the highest number of students being from China.
- There were 69,155 boarding pupils on Census day – 17th January 2019.
- An increasing number of ISC schools operate campuses overseas, educating 39,616 pupils.
Arguments for private schools
One argument for independent schools is that they are like Beacon schools, showcasing the very best of education. Independent schools provide a very positive learning environment for their pupils, with some of the best teacher-pupil ratios in the country, excellent learner support facilities and other resources deployed in IT, sports and the arts, to give students a well-rounded, broad education. They also tend to instill good discipline in students, so truancy and exclusion rates should be lower than for state schools.
Then there’s the results, which are far better than for state schools. In 2018 48% of private-school students achieved A*s and As at A-level was 48%, nearly double the national average of 26%.
There is also an economic arguemnt for independent schools, in the context of an increasingly global education market – increasing numbers of parents from abroad (especially China) pay fees to have their students attend British independent schools – meaning these schools are an econmic asset, they bring money into the country.
Finally, from a Liberal (or broadly postmodern) perspective, surely parents have the right to send their children to private schools rather than state schools?
Arguments against private schools
I’ve taken many (but not all) of the arguments below from Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem by Francis Green and David Kynaston.
Green and Kynaston argue that the existence of private schools limits the life chances of those who attend state schools and damages wider society.
One in every 16 pupils attends an independent school, and yet one in every seven teachers works at an independent school, meaning that as a nation we spend twice as much on the 6-7% of privately educated pupils as we do on pupils attending state schools. Green and Kynasaton argues that the primary effect of this intense focus of resources on the top 6-7% is to give them an increased chance (read unfair advantage) of getting into a top university and then into one of the elite professions.
Between 2010 and 2015 an average of 40% from Oxford and Cambridge were made to the 6-7% of students who had been privately educated, which effectively blocks offers going to those who attended state schools. 54% of ISC pupils continue to a Russell Group university.
The private school advantage carries on throughout the life cycle – Politics, the media, and public service all show high proportions of privately educated in their number, including 65% of senior judges, 59% of civil service permanent secretaries and 57% of the House of Lords.
Essentially what Private schools do is reproduce class inequality!
But there’s also a deeper problem, one of resource inefficiency – extra resources given to students who are doing well or OK produce diminishing returns compared to extra resources being spent on those students who are less able. For example in a classroom where there is already one teaching assistant, adding another won’t do as much good as adding one classroom assistant to a classroom where there are no teaching assistants.
The whole of the indepdent school system does just that for the children of the wealthy…. we spend twice as much to give them a little boost so they can get into the best jobs, meaning fewer resources being spent on average or the worse off students, where these resources would probably do much more social good.
Finally, James Blunt attended a private school. Maybe if he’d have gone to a regular secondary modern he would have produced some better music?
Conclusion: are private schools good or bad for Britain?
On balance it would seem that Independent schools give a significant advantages to the children of the parents of those who can afford to pay their tuition fees. As a result of attending an independent school students benefit from smaller class sizes and more support, which translates into a much improved chance of getting into a Russel Group University and then into an elite job.
For those who attend one of the elite public schools these advantages are especially significant, multiplied it seems by cultural and social capital which provide advantage through the life course.
However, whether having a concentration of the upper middle classes going into the best jobs and effectively running the country benefits Britain as a whole is much more open to debate.
If you believe that having diversity in the elite professions and government is of benefit to society, then private schools prevent this by effectively keeping out people from poorer backgrounds.
It is also possible that the huge resource expenditure on each privately educated child would be more effectively spent educating the more disadvantaged kids rather than the most disadvantaged.
Personally, I’d rather see less spending on private education and the rich kids fending for themselves, competing on a level playing field with the other 90% of kids, and more money spent on compensatory education for those at the very bottom!
If you relate this to some of the evidence from Left Realism (especially the Perry School Project) – a few thousand pounds extra spent on disadvantaged kids at a young age pays back several times over as those children are kept in school educated effectively and prevented from pursuing a life of crime.
However, abolishing private schools is unlikely to happen given that so many people in government attended a private school.
Sources / Find out More
- UK government info on private schools – Types of school: private schools
- The Good Schools Guide – The Independent School System in a Nutshell
- The Independent Schools Council – 2019 survey of independent schools
- The Sutton Trust – Elitist Britain 2019
- Guardian Article (2019)- Britain’s private school problem: it’s time to talk
- Guardian Article (2018) – Review of ‘Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain‘
- Schools Week – Private schools need phasing out, here’s how it can be done.