Across the UK, independent schools educate around 6.5 per cent of pupils. This corresponds to 625,000 children in around 2,600 schools. Most of these pupils, around 80 per cent, attend schools that are affiliated to the prestigious Independent Schools Council (ISC).
Recently published data from this organisation reveals that of the 511,928 pupils attending ISC schools, 35,720 are non-British – around 7 per cent. It comes as something as a surprise, therefore, to read that Andrew Hall, head of the independent King’s College School in Wimbledon and education blogger for The Sunday Times, believes that ever higher fees being charged by independent schools puts them in danger of becoming “finishing schools for the children of oligarchs”. He claims that, “in truth there is a fees time-bomb ticking away” that “over the next ten years could prove seismic.” He forecasts that fee increases are unsustainable and that soon the ‘system’ will collapse.
His own school charges day pupils £20,000 a year, well above average but, nevertheless, appears to have no difficulty in filling its places. For all Mr Hall may feel a twinge of social conscience about fees inflation, it is difficult to see much sense in his taking on the stance of the public schools’ Jeremiah. “If independent schools don’t read the writing on the wall, they will surely perish, one by one, ” he predicts.
It is true, as he points out, that in “the past few years about 50 private schools have already closed, merged, or turned into state schools.” We can expect some small independent faith schools to follow suit if the latest news from Tower Hamlets is to be believed. However, the number of pupils attending private schools today exceeds the number preceding the 2008 economic crisis. The underlying trend since the late 1980s has been one of growth. This year the numbers are up, once again.
As our population continues to surge we are unlikely to see the number of privately educated pupils dropping any time soon. The tiny minority of non-British pupils will, doubtless, increase but is unlikely ever to compare with the percentage of foreigners attending the elite Russell Group universities.
These institutions are actively pursuing students from overseas for the very reason that causes the headmaster of King’s College, Wimbledon such angst. They bring lots of money with them. Unlike independent schools in the UK, our universities can charge higher tuition fees to students from overseas. Edinburgh University has already announced that it is seeking to expand sufficiently for it to recruit half of its intake from overseas without reducing the number of UK students.
Mr Hall’s prognostication of doom for independent schools, however, is built on more than his apparent discomfort with foreign money. He thinks that state schools are improving so rapidly, “getting better and better”, that parents who struggle to pay private school fees will turn in ever-greater numbers to the maintained sector. If parents are aware of the UK’s poor and declining position, internationally, in terms of educational attainment, they will be less easily persuaded than Mr Hall supposes.
There is only one school reform that would justify Mr Hall’s pessimism about the future of independent schools – a massive expansion of grammar schools in line with parental demand. Sadly, it is illegal to set up a new grammar school. Both the Coalition Government and the Opposition support the ban on any more grammar schools. Andrew Hall does not appear to understand this inconvenient truth. His latest Sunday Times blog announces that, “in the last week, word came out of the first new grammar school in a generation”. Untrue! No such good news has been declared, I am afraid.
The best we can hope for is that an existing grammar school may expand by setting up a ‘satellite’ unit nearby. A previous proposal to expand an existing grammar school was rejected by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary. Mr. Hall proclaims that the “times are certainly a-changing”. How I wish he were right!