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Independent Schools

Volume 754: debated on Monday 23 June 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of independent schools on the British economy, in the light of the report The impact of independent schools on the British economy, published by the Independent Schools Council in April.

My Lords, we have made no specific assessment of the contribution that independent schools make to the United Kingdom economy, although we welcome its reported significant size. The Government’s policy is to focus their energies and resources on raising standards for pupils in state-funded schools. We welcome in particular the contribution that private schools make to the state-funded school system, in support for academies and free schools and in partnerships with state schools.

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend has read this report with great care, even if no assessment has been formed. Would she agree that, at nearly £10 billion, the total amount provided by independent schools to our national economy is extremely impressive, exceeding that of the BBC? Would she also agree that the largest section of this report sets out the wide range of schemes being undertaken by independent schools in partnership with their local communities and state schools, a partnership that is growing in extent all the time? Would she agree, finally, that this report gives the lie to those who maintain that there is some form of Berlin Wall separating the independent and state sectors?

My Lords, I have read this report with enormous interest, and my noble friend is right to point out the contribution of independent schools to the UK economy. At £9.5 billion, it is very substantial. As we know, many of these schools are outstanding, but I also know that my noble friend is passionate about social mobility through education and therefore the role that the independent sector can play in that. It is good to see in this report that more than 80% of the Independent Schools Council member schools are involved in partnerships with state schools, seeking to improve standards and outcomes for all pupils.

My Lords, had the state in Britain taken responsibility for provision of schools and high-quality technical education, instead of leaving education to the churches, Dr Arnold of Rugby and the comfortably off, with their predilection for exclusive and expensive boarding schools for their male offspring, might we then have not thrown away our lead in the Industrial Revolution? Does not that early failure to make public provision of good schools for all, and of technical education in particular, continue to haunt our economic performance? I declare an interest as having been educated at Rugby School.

The noble Lord is a great credit to Rugby, no doubt. He will know from his history that these schools were often set up—if you look at Shakespeare—for poor boys, not girls, in the past, and they evolved over time, as he indicated. The church indeed became involved. In terms of our lead in the Industrial Revolution, it would have been astonishing had other countries not joined us in that, but clearly those countries that joined us had a stress on science that was critical to what then happened. We need to make sure that all our schools, and our state schools in particular, emphasise a science education.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister mentioned the large number of independent schools that have links with schools in the maintained sector, but could she say how those links are assessed for the purposes of gaining charitable status? Could she say, too, how many independent schools take part in teacher training—because, of course, they all benefit from state-trained teachers?

The report indicates that 80% of ISC schools are engaged in some sort of partnership with state schools. I suggest that the noble Baroness looks at that point: indeed, she probably already has. The Charity Commission looks at the contribution those schools are making to the local community, and this issue is part of that. The report mentions a number of instances of independent schools assisting in teacher training and teacher support, but it is not quantified.

In order to promote this synthesis between the maintained and private sectors of British schooling, will the Government consider withdrawing charitable status from private schools and using the estimated £100 million that would be saved annually to reduce class sizes in the maintained sector, for instance?

As the noble Lord knows, this issue has been long discussed. The previous Government chose not to do what he suggests and we have no plans to do it. However, I remind noble Lords that the private sector constitutes a very small proportion of our education system. It is extremely important to make sure that the quality of our state education system is second to none because, as the noble Lord will know, we face global competition of an acute order. We focus on that, as did the previous Government, and that is where our emphasis should be.

My Lords, I have not yet read the report in detail, but will do so, and therefore cannot say whether it gives the lie to the theory of the Berlin Wall. However, is not the perception of a Berlin Wall particularly damaging and plausible when people are becoming so disengaged from politics and are bitterly aware of the number of privately educated people at the top of it?

The noble Baroness is right about the disproportionate number of such people at the top of absolutely every profession, including politics, if you call it a profession. Therefore, it is exceedingly important that we focus on making sure that the state sector does a better job in ensuring that students are able to flourish and fulfil their potential. That is key.

My Lords, although I believe that the success of independent schools has helped our economy, what progress has been made by Teach First, whose students have often attended independent schools, and what contribution is it making to our education system? Will the noble Baroness comment on today’s news that the Government may be considering “Teach Last” as well, which would help to improve the school curriculum as regards subjects such as maths?

My noble friend’s last point is very interesting and I will feed that into the department. It is encouraging to see the number of recent graduates who are coming into teaching; it has grown enormously. The proportion with, for example, firsts and 2:1 degrees reached 74% in 2013-14, compared with 66% in 2011-12, which is very encouraging.

My Lords, in order to measure the gap in respect of the contribution that the independent sector is making to the national economy and elsewhere, can a similar study be done on the contribution of state schools so that any deficiencies can be remedied?

There are numerous and ongoing reviews as to what our education system does. They happened under the previous Government and have happened under ours. That is why we are taking forward and ring-fencing education. We will have increased schools funding by £3.6 billion, which includes the pupil premium. We are acutely aware of the importance of strengthening that. We are also aware of the foreign students who come into the independent sector, and the earnings that the UK economy gets from them.