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Independent Schools: Variety and Diversity

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the variety and diversity of schools within the independent education sector.

My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests as president of both the Independent Schools Association and of the Council for Independent Education.

The association provides a range of excellent services to its expanding membership—up from 300 thriving, mainly smaller schools, averaging under 400 pupils a few years ago to some 360 today. The council brings together 18 independent colleges, helping them to enhance their already high standards, which will be on display in your Lordships’ House next week when I present annual awards to the most successful students drawn from all manner of backgrounds within this country and overseas. They look to the Government for one thing above all—the removal of unnecessary obstacles to student visas. Many independent schools feel equally strongly about that.

There are a number of other highly regarded professional organisations working on behalf of the 1,250 schools which have chosen to join them on terms that include regular inspection and published reports under Ofsted’s watchful oversight. I encountered an array of those well-established bodies during my time as general secretary of the Independent Schools Council between 1997 and 2004. With misplaced radicalism at the beginning of my tenure, I urged them to coalesce so they could speak with a united voice—not least to the Government of Mr Blair. I had no success. The organisations that represent independent schools reflect the innate diversity and variety, which are the hallmarks of the schools themselves, where 80% of the 625,000 pupils in the independent sector are educated. Yet those long-standing characteristics go almost entirely unremarked, and it is my object in this debate to underline their importance.

I am grateful to those noble Lords who will be taking part. This is a short debate. I regard it as opening salvo, and I hope to have other opportunities to carry forward and enlarge the discussion of issues relating to independent schools. It is in the national interest to do this.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Nash, who has taken a deep and constructive interest in these issues, cannot reply to this debate on behalf of the Government because of duties in Birmingham. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford for speaking in his stead.

My starting point is the extraordinary collection of misconceptions that dominate discussion of independent schools—in the media, in politics and over the dinner tables of the chattering classes. It is a long-standing national habit to view all independent schools as aloof, expensive and exclusive, barred to almost everyone in the land. The impression is now gaining ground that the cost has become so great—around £30,000 a year is the widely quoted figure—that soon only Russian oligarchs will be able to afford them. This takes to extreme lengths a misapprehension that has a cause as simple as it is difficult to dispel: a stubborn determination to regard all independent schools, of which there are more than 2,500 in total, as having been created in the image of a handful of famous public schools, which for some 150 years have been accused of occupying central and malign roles in creating and sustaining deep social division in our country. The famous picture taken of the Eton-Harrow cricket match in 1937 of two Harrovians in top hats being stared at derisively by three urchins is still used to illustrate innumerable articles about independent schools, despite being totally out of date and wholly unrepresentative.

I will not in this debate enter into the tempting historical argument as to whether the grave charge laid against the major public schools is true but I emphasise it as the factor that has done most to create the wholly misleading impression that is so rife today. An imaginary uniformity is attributed to independent schools. The variety and diversity that are their actual attributes have been lost to sight. Consider the question of fees—understandably, everybody does. It is perfectly true that places in boarding schools can be costly. Superb facilities are provided in return. But boarders represent only one in eight pupils. Far from being typical, very expensive schools are the exception. In some day schools in the Independent Schools Association, fees are at a level similar to the average cost of a place in the maintained sector, which makes many heads yearn for the introduction of an open-access scheme to their schools at every level of ability.

More than half of independent schools are not academically selective. Every year, means-tested bursaries increase. Over a third of pupils now receive help with their fees. Every year more pupils from ethnic minority families begin their education at independent schools. A higher proportion of ethnic minority pupils are in independent schools in England than in maintained schools. Many teachers seek to reach out as fully as possible to the communities around them. I think of a remarkable little school outside Lichfield where I presented prizes last summer. Maple Hayes Hall School has a superb track record of helping children with learning difficulties. The chairman of the local council described it last week as a jewel in the district’s crown, yet the local education authorities go to considerable lengths to try to prevent parents of statemented children from sending them to Maple Hayes, precipitating lengthy and expensive cases before tribunals. Such behaviour, inimical to the interests of the children of this country, really should end.

The independent sector has in this generation committed itself fully to partnership with state schools. The further development of partnership is the theme of the manifesto that the Independent Schools Council has published for the coming election. A proper understanding of what independent schools have to offer by way of full partnership can be achieved only by recognising and relishing the diversity and variety that exists within the sector. How can this be done? One way would be through a careful survey of members of the Independent Schools Association by an impartial education expert or an education journalist or two. The idea was enthusiastically received by many of the heads of the schools when I put it to them last week.

Emails have poured in, giving a foretaste of what those carrying out such a survey might expect. I will give a few examples.

At Gosfield School in Essex,

“we halved our prep school fees three years ago and provide substantial bursary support to families in the local community”.

At Babington House School in Chislehurst,

“we accept pupils from a variety of backgrounds, some of whom have very significant and particular needs. We are not a rich school and have no large endowments, but nevertheless we provide a number of means-tested bursaries”.

At Moon Hall College in Reigate,

“virtually all our pupils come to us having failed to achieve their potential in a mainstream school despite additional support. Many are still virtually illiterate when they arrive but they leave us full of confidence, having taken their GCSEs and been admitted to sixth-form colleges”.

At Claires Court School in Maidenhead, academic selection is totally rejected as,

“harmful to social mobility and the long term development of all children”.

At Thorpe Hall School in Southend,

“operating in a highly selective 11+ area with four huge grammar schools, we educate many pupils who did not get through that filter but would not thrive in a large comprehensive”.

At Brockwood Park School, in Bramdean,

“young people from diverse nations and cultures share the adventure of growing and learning together, and will be less likely as adults to engage in discriminatory prejudice”.

At Tring Park School for the Performing Arts,

“awards in the region of £650,000 (10 per cent of turnover) are made each year for drama and musical theatre scholarships and bursaries”.

At Thames Christian College,

“the vast majority of pupils come from families who would never have thought they would ever send their children to a private school; around 40 per cent of our pupils do not pay the full fees”.

I have been sent many more such snapshots of the variety and diversity of life in independent schools today. I have not even mentioned the wide range of activities undertaken by schools in their local communities which show up as risible the patronising comment made by the head of Ofsted last year that they represent no more than “crumbs from the table”.

Finally, I will quote the outstanding head of the James Allen’s Girls School in south London,

“an inner-city school where 50 home languages are spoken and we currently have 126 students who hold means-tested bursaries. We regularly send girls from under-privileged backgrounds and other under-represented groups such as Afro-Caribbean heritage to top universities”,

where, she adds, poignantly,

“they are at once officially classified as coming from a privileged independent school background”.

No one knows more about partnership with state schools than this most successful head, who has taken part in a large variety of collaborative schemes in recent years. She concludes, wisely, that,

“both sectors have a wide range of schools within them and neither one has the exclusive right to excellence”.

To that, I hope we will all say, “Amen”.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for having given us the chance to debate this very important topic this afternoon and for the impressive way he has laid out the case for independent schools. Before I go any further, I need to make the Committee aware that I have in the past acted as a governor of one of the seven great schools that was the subject of the Clarendon Commission in the 1860s. Incidentally, that commission was set up because of allegations of bullying among pupils—what we would now call child abuse; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—and which led to the Public Schools Act 1868.

Secondly, and more relevantly, I was the official reviewer appointed by the Government for the Charities Act 2006, which of course brought me into direct contact with the issue of public benefit. My work on that review showed me the very deep roots the education system has in the charity sector. The oldest charity is the King’s School, Canterbury, founded in 597. I do not think it has a continuous record, but it can trace a thread through from 597 to the present day.

Up until the Middle Ages, the church—through the monasteries—helped the sick, looked after the disabled and provided education. The dissolution of the monasteries—Wolf Hall and all that—meant that private endeavour had to step in. If you look at the foundation dates of a number of our great schools, you will see that several were founded between 1530 and 1580. That trend was accentuated because during the later Elizabethan era there was substantial social unrest caused by inflation and bad harvests, which resulted in groups of poor people roaming the country. Noble Lords may recall the nursery rhyme that begins,

“Hark, hark, the dogs do bark. The beggars are coming to town”.

That comes from Elizabethan times and led to the great Statute of Charitable Uses 1601 on which our charity law is based. It had three purposes which were presumed to be charitable—the promotion of religion, the relief of poverty and the advancement of education. That presumption remained in place for more than four centuries until it was abolished by the 2006 Act.

My noble friend has laid out an impressive case on behalf of the independent sector and I do not wish to repeat his arguments. However, I would argue that you are unlikely to strengthen the weak by weakening the strong; the independent sector has proved to be very strong and should therefore be encouraged. One of the greatest achievements of this Government has been to begin to raise standards in the state sector. That is the way we should be proceeding, so that the independent sector begins to feel the hot breath of competition. This will help all sectors and all our students from every background in every part of the country.

The independent sector is facing a couple of challenges. Independent schools are particularly concerned with the issues of variety and diversity which we are discussing. The first is what I call the facilities arms race, the wish for every independent school to have as far as possible the very best facilities, not just academic but sporting and artistic—music rooms, art schools and so on. This is a worthy aim, but it is an aim that comes at some cost and with implications for fees. Schools often say that the capital costs of such facilities are paid for by appeals to alumni and old members of the school, but this often overlooks the maintenance costs of the additional staff you have to hire to run the school and the inevitable need to maintain the buildings after they have been constructed. There is some concern that if this arms race continues, then gradually and imperceptibly fee levels will increase, which cannot be helpful or satisfactory to the sector. As my noble friend has said, we want to make sure that the sector remains open to as wide a proportion of our population as possible and we need to be mindful of the dangers and problems of what happens if we do not remember the squeezed middle.

There is a second aspect to this. The point was made in the briefing to us about the contribution made to the financial state of the country by individual schools from recruitment overseas. That is a fair point, but it is a point which can be taken too far. During my review, I met a very wise headmaster who said to me that, where you had 5% of students from overseas, that helped the school, but when it went above 10% it began to dissipate the school’s values and the school began to lose a sense of social cohesion. This challenge is particularly acute away from honeyed London and the south-east. During my review I travelled to schools in other parts of the country. The independent schools in London and the south-east have a wonderfully affluent and diverse pool of potential pupils to draw from. This is less the case when one moves west and particularly north where geographical distance begins to play a more important role and where schools are, in many cases, less well endowed or well supported than their south-eastern counterparts.

My final point concerns charitable status. In my review of the Charities Act it became very clear what huge advantages charitable status provided. Of course it concerns taxation and taxation privileges but, above all, it is reputational. The charity brand remains very strong in the public mind. One of the principal conclusions of my review was that charitable status is a privilege, not a right, and privilege carries with it responsibilities. Some of these were referred to by my noble friend—to reach out to the wider community, to help educational establishments which are less fortunate or less well equipped, and to be humble enough to learn lessons from schools outside the independent sector and from society as a whole. These will be the continuing challenges for the independent sector and there can be no room for self-congratulation. Independent schools have been clever and flexible in reinventing themselves many times over the centuries. I hope and trust that that flexibility remains part of their DNA.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this debate and for the variety and diversity of his opening speech. I want to begin my contribution by reminding the Committee that independent schools teach only 7% of the country’s school pupils, but the Debrett’s 500 list reveals that more than 40% of the country’s most influential figures went to fee-paying schools. Indeed, half of all noble Lords in the House have been privately educated, and more than 70% of our senior judges are former pupils of independent schools. The figures point out that independent schools are disproportionately dominant in their influence on today’s society.

If we are to discuss diversity within independent schools, we need to examine what has changed where independent schools and social mobility are concerned. I remember that parents on low incomes could receive valuable scholarships, but now the focus is mostly on bursaries that seek to help families on lower incomes afford fees on a sliding scale. This represents greater access to independent schools. At this moment in time, over a third of independent school pupils are on these bursaries. It is safe to say that such schools cannot end social mobility problems alone—as I have pointed out, they teach only 7% of the country’s school pupils—but I can only hope that if such monetary assistance continues, it is done in order to increase social mobility rather than to filter out gifted children from the maintained sector.

In my home town of Liverpool, there was an independent school called Liverpool College. The school principal decided to convert it into an academy, thus receiving public funding. The reason was that many parents wanted their children to attend but were unable to afford the fees. The benefits were reaped almost immediately. Pupils are admitted through random allocation, with some preference given to those who live within two miles of the school. Some students continue to board, but they pay less than 50% of what is charged by standard public schools, and their education is free. The demographics of the school are starting to shift; more pupils are eligible for the pupil premium, and more have been in care or come from ethnic minorities. The reason I brought up this example is that it highlights how the “greatness” of independent schools that traditionalists tend to emphasise can also be achieved in a state-funded school. Being able to expand the curriculum is what counts when seeking to enjoy a fully rounded education, and this need not be compromised at non fee-paying schools, as Liverpool College demonstrates. It is true that schools have a lot more freedom when they are independent, but the standard of provision, imaginative teaching and the quality of teaching is not different between the sectors.

The next issue to which I wish to turn is a large and contentious one—partnerships between independent schools and state schools. Some 90% of ISC schools are in mutually beneficial partnerships with state schools and local communities, but I feel that this figure should really be 100%. However, enforcing such partnerships may cause legal and logistical problems. It may not be wise to take away schools’ charitable status because treating schools as businesses would isolate them from society and work against our goal of partnership and collaboration. These partnerships can be encouraged, but they must be organic. Many London independent schools organise summer schools for primary schoolchildren in their local areas, including the loaning out of sports facilities and swimming pools, and teachers sharing resources and ideas to improve the quality of teaching. The list is truly endless. I am very glad that the DfE has agreed to fund 18 new partnerships and their start-up costs. This exchange of information allows the pupils to benefit from cross-sector wisdom and encourages a community spirit. Part of the discussion on diversity also invites a mention of transparency. It is no secret that independent schools receive charitable status, which can be considered a euphemism for tax breaks. These partnerships are a method by which private schools can earn that status.

As I mentioned earlier, the exchange of teaching methods is paramount to the quality of teaching, and this leads to my final point—innovation. We should of course note that innovation in schools is the product of a number of different things. Although evidence in this area is scarce, innovation is likely to be driven by evolving continuous professional development among teachers, employing teachers and school leaders from a wide range of backgrounds, guaranteeing flexibility in the curriculum and developing new technologies.

The case for for-profit schools rests on the concept that competition is the best driver of school improvement. The international evidence does not support this claim. The evidence on what works in improving school standards emphasises other factors: the quality of teaching, the need to reduce educational inequalities, and school autonomy—but only when coupled with sufficient accountability. The OECD’s analysis of the PISA results for the past several years has suggested that schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to do better than those with less autonomy. However, in countries where there are no such accountability measures, the reverse is true.

That innovation would therefore mean that independent schools’ influence on maintained schools would be supplementary to state school education, as opposed to a necessity on which they depend. Therefore, it is not a rethink of any sort of hierarchy that we need, but a rethink of what are the most important tools for improving the diversity and variety of education and those who benefit from it.

My Lords, we should all be indebted to my noble friend Lord Lexden for giving us possibly the last opportunity in this Parliament to highlight the vital role of independent schools in the education sector and the contribution they make to civil society. Those of us who have had the good fortune to know him for many years, to have heard his erudite contributions in this House, and indeed to follow him on his remarkable website, know that the issue about which he feels most passionately is Ulster. But a very close second is independent education, a cause for which he has always been a formidable and authoritative champion.

I attended Brentwood School in Essex, where I received a first-class education that has been the foundation of all that I have done since. When I came to this House, one of the reasons I chose the title I did was because of my affection for my old school. I am now honoured to be a governor there, and I declare my interest accordingly. When I joined the school in 1971, it was a direct grant school. My parents could not have afforded to send me there otherwise. Direct grant schools were a very important part of our education system because in so many ways they neatly bridged the gap between the maintained sector and private education. I still believe that the abolition of direct grant status was a terrible act of educational vandalism.

But every cloud has a silver lining and for schools such as Brentwood, which were in effect forced into the private sector, independent status has proved to be of huge importance and value. The reason for that is this: genuine independence from the state and from the taxpayer has been the spur to innovation, and innovation has in turn been the engine of the diversity and variety that are the hallmark of the independent sector today. It is those three attributes that are the secret of success.

Your Lordships should think of it this way: independence means being judged every day on so many things—the standard of teaching, the provision of up-to-date facilities, the level of pastoral care, after-school activities, the quality of engagement with pupils and the effectiveness of communication with parents. Independent schools have to pass all those tests—and many more—every day or they fail. That so many of them are, like Brentwood, highly successful schools shows how effectively they meet these daily demands. As I said just now, crucial to that is the ability to innovate at the same time as preserving the tradition and heritage that are so valued by parents. Experimentation, original thought and the most up-to-date digital technology all sit alongside a respect for institutional history and custom, and a culture of excellence engrained over generations.

In this context, for a school like Brentwood, that means embracing systems such as the “diamond structure”, in which girls and boys are educated in single-gender groups from 11 to 16 and in a fully co-educational context post-16. It means championing a holistic approach to education, placing personal and social development, the importance of music, art, sport and community service alongside academic achievement. And it means the ability to offer ground-breaking curriculum alternatives such as the international baccalaureate diploma programme as well as international GCSEs, the rigour of which have underlined the general problem of grade inflation. Indeed, it seems to me that the innovation of the independent sector in championing these alternatives has been one of the spurs to the changes in the examination system that have been a key part of the Government’s education reforms.

As my noble friend Lord Lexden reminded us, schools across the independent sector come in many shapes and sizes, with often radically differing ethos and organisation; but they share in common a great deal. I have already talked about their educational fervour, appreciation of the value of independence and the immediacy of accountability. Another thing they share is a commitment to a diversity of pupils from different backgrounds. More than 28% of pupils at independent schools are from a minority ethnic background, which is 1.5% higher than in the state sector. When I visited my old prep school recently, I was struck by the extraordinary range of languages other than English spoken. I heard in the course of a morning Polish, Romanian, Italian and Spanish—something that brings a rich cultural diversity and global perspective to young minds and outlooks.

Perhaps most vitally, all independent schools have done a huge amount over the years to make entrance to them accessible to anyone who really wants to get there. Direct grant status helped my parents, whose living came only from a shoe shop in Upminster, to get me there. Today, that opportunity comes from a very generous system of bursaries for families who have trouble finding the fees and which has become a hallmark of the sector. These bursaries have been built up by generations of philanthropists and former pupils. For many existing pupils, means-tested bursaries throughout the sector are worth an average of £7,984 per year. More than 5,000 pupils at ISC schools pay no fees at all. I say to my noble friend Lord Storey that he is absolutely right to talk about social mobility. That is one aspect of social mobility in action.

More than a century ago, my grandfather attended Christ’s Hospital—a school with a long and distinguished history of reaching out to families of modest means. Today, it offers more bursaries than any other independent boarding school with just under 80% of its 680 pupils receiving support, and 123 getting full fee remission. Last year, it spent £16 million on means-tested purposes, a staggering sum, showing how seriously it, in common with other independent schools, takes its wider civil obligations and its charitable status.

As well as bursaries to enable greater access to children of all backgrounds, independent schools reach out to the wider community. Some, such as my own school, extend a helping hand to maintained schools wishing to start, for instance, their own combined cadet force. Others offer specialist Oxbridge tuition and assist local authorities to teach subjects in which specialist teachers are in short supply. In all these areas, independent schools are using the variety and diversity—and indeed the excellence—among them to expand diversity and variety within the maintained sector.

I hope what this excellent debate will achieve is to highlight three things: first, that the independent schools of today are a light-year away from the image many in this House may have had of private schools in the past. As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said, they have reinvented themselves, as they have done many times. They are modern, multicultural, diverse, home to cutting-edge digital technology and learning, and, above all, open to the gifted and ambitious whatever their background. Secondly, they take with the utmost seriousness the responsibilities from their charitable status, both through bursaries and wider community involvement. Thirdly and finally, as a result of their priceless independence from government, they add to the diversity and variety of our education system and, above all, of our society as a whole.

My Lords, I begin by apologising to my noble friend Lord Lexden, and indeed to your Lordships, for arriving during his opening speech. I was inadvertently detained elsewhere. I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for giving us this very important debate, and remind your Lordships of my education interests in the register.

Having worked in both private and state schools, I am an admirer—by no means an uncritical admirer—of the independent sector. My noble friend Lord Lexden has in the past pointed out that the majority of its schools bear no resemblance to those distinguished and well known boarding establishments that too often the press seems to imply epitomise the independent sector. The independent sector is extremely diverse and wide in its offering to parents. I want to refer very briefly to one aspect of its education provision, which is very different indeed from those famous schools before-mentioned and provides a superb service with very little fanfare—the independent special schools sector.

Under the previous Government, in the 10 years from 1997, some 9,000 special school places and 145 maintained special schools were lost in the state sector. That was because of a somewhat dogmatic application of the ideology of inclusion, which demanded that most children with special needs could be catered for in mainstream schools. I make no political point here, as all parties seemed to support this view at one time or other following the Warnock report. However, gradually common sense prevailed. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, herself had many second thoughts. Inclusion can work extremely well for those with certain physical disabilities, but can too often lead to distress and a serious lack of progress in others.

By 2010, however, there was a net increase in the number of special schools as some 220 new independent ones had been founded to fill the gaps created by the closures. Typically, parents of children with particular special needs found that there was little provision for them and would form a small charity to take over the work. This was for most a hugely difficult task, and the parents concerned are much to be praised for their dedication and determination to do the best for their children and the children of others. However, many graduated from the rooms of private houses to find proper accommodation as their pupil numbers grew. Persuading local authorities to pay the fees, or some of the fees, was difficult in some areas, but these schools flourished and today are a most important part of SEN provision. Today, there are some 550 of these schools in England, and Section 41 of the Children and Families Act 2014 allows the Secretary of State to publish a list of approved independent and non-maintained special schools and special post-16 institutions.

Department for Education figures show that some £612 million per annum is spent in placing children with SEN in these schools, which is 30% of the special schools placement budget. They vary in size, from the small institutions that I mentioned to large and long-formed charities, such as the wonderful Young Epilepsy’s St Piers School in Lingfield, where I live, which was founded in 1904 and provides 24-hour care every day of the year to children and young people with the most serious disabilities, including acute epilepsy, severe autism spectrum disorder and other associated neurological disorders and difficulties. On its 60-acre site is a farm on which the young people can work, recently supported by a large private donation. There are drama courses, business administration, ICT, media studies and many other classes suitable for these youngsters who gain hugely from being in a structured and caring environment.

The National Association of Independent Schools & Non-maintained Special Schools, to which I pay tribute, has some 220 schools in its membership and has produced a number of very valuable research reports. Its October 2011 study, using what was admittedly a small sample of seven schools, revealed that, for day and part-time boarding, delivery costs were between £7,000 and £17,000 lower annually per pupil than for the equivalent provision in local authority-maintained schools. As I said, this was a small study, and we need better comparative data, but at least it tends to suggest that the taxpayer gets good value for money from the independent special sector.

The extraordinary advances in medicine of the last decades mean that many more children with the most serious multiple disabilities now not only survive birth but can find much contentment in their lives with the proper attention, therapies, medication, supervision and, hugely importantly, appropriate education. The independent sector has risen magnificently to this challenge and is clearly the most valuable adjunct to local authority provision.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for tabling this debate and for giving us a chance to reflect on what is happening in the independent education sector and to scrutinise the latest journey that it is embarking upon.

I start with an acknowledgement: the sector has done very well for the parents that pay its sometimes eye-watering fees. Their children are twice as likely to attend a Russell Group university compared to their peers from the state sector and they are five times as likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge, with only one in 100 pupils from the state sector winning a place there. The Sutton Trust has identified five elite schools and colleges which have as many Oxbridge entrants as nearly 2,000 state schools and colleges. The advantages do not stop there. Pupils go from that advantage to make up 71% of senior judges, 53% of senior diplomats, 45% of public body chairs, 43% of newspaper columnists, 33% of MPs and, of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, drew to our attention, 50% of your Lordships’ House.

What does that really tell us and where does it get us? At one level, it reaffirms that our education system is still entrenched along old class division lines and that state school children have to struggle that much harder to succeed against the odds, but I am sorry to say that I think that when the noble Lord opened the debate, he was asking the wrong question. It is not a question of how we can add to the variety or diversity of a sector that is by its very nature selective and elite.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Just to recap, the point I was making was that we are debating the wrong question. The challenge is not really about how we can add to the variety or diversity of the independent sector but much more about how we can give every child in this country a first-class education and an equal chance of succeeding in the very fast-changing global market. Noble Lords do not need me to tell them that the world is changing. If we have any chance of remaining a player in it, we must make sure that all our children are equipped with the skills, knowledge and character to compete successfully.

Our view is that we will lose out if we allow the top jobs to be the preserve of young people from a very small pool. The unskilled, low-ambition jobs of the past simply will not be there for those who are excluded. So whether it is a high-quality vocational offering or a comparable academic grounding, it has to be available to all young people regardless of the type of school they attend. This has to be the way of the future and it is a challenge across the entire educational landscape, including the private sector.

What does the independent sector have to do to play a part in addressing this challenge? One answer is that it should develop deep and measurable partnerships with state schools and share its resources and skills so that the benefits can be shared; for example, independent schools’ teaching expertise can be utilised to help disadvantaged state school children into the top- class universities, or by running joint extracurricular programmes with equal access, opening up their sports and arts facilities to joint activities with local schools, and running summer schools and mentoring programmes, thus giving access to their employer networks for careers advice and work experience. They also provide care and innovation in the special school sectors, as described so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield. I fully acknowledge that that is a role which independent schools play.

All this could be encapsulated in a new schools partnership standard as proposed by our party against which the independent schools will be measured. To give an added incentive, we would amend the Local Government Act 1988 so that private schools’ business rate relief would become conditional on passing the new standard. Those independent schools that are already involved in these activities have nothing to fear from these changes, while those that have not kept up with the times will find it difficult to justify why they continue to be subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of some £700 million over the course of a Parliament.

The statistics appear to show that only 3% of independent schools sponsor an academy, only 5% loan teaching staff to state schools, and one-third allow state school pupils to attend lessons on their premises, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that more transparent and robust independent verification of what is going on in this sector would help us all. However, on this basis it appears that they have a long way to go before they will be able to persuade us that they are involved across the board in true partnerships with the state sector. While I welcome the noble Lord’s commitment to diversity, I would suggest that we need to be much more open about what they are able to offer. If there are to be meaningful partnerships in the future, they need to be based on the recognition of the much bigger challenge of providing a world-class education for every child, which is ultimately in all our interests. On this basis, I am sure that the Minister will agree with much of what I have said, and I look forward to hearing her response.

My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Lexden for calling this debate on a very important subject, and other noble Lords for their wide-ranging contributions. I know that my noble friend is a bit disappointed that my noble friend Lord Nash is not here, but I hope that he will be satisfied with my response. I stand here feeling slightly humble because I know that he has a wealth of experience and knowledge of the independent schools sector. As the president of the Independent Schools Association and of the Council for Independent Education, he is already familiar with the proud tradition of the independent sector and the benefits it can bring to thousands of our children, as well as to the communities in which they are situated. I look forward to Parliament hosting his event next week to celebrate the successes of pupils from the smaller independent schools.

I know that this is a topic which is dear to my noble friend’s heart. The diversity of the independent education sector is part of its strength and remains an important part of our educational landscape—as it has been for hundreds of years. The choice the sector brings to parents and children to meet their specific needs and aspirations has to be welcomed. I agree entirely with my noble friend that independent schools make a positive contribution to the life of this country and that we should be proud of the world-class education which many of them provide. My noble friend Lord Black also made the very good point that independent schools today look nothing like the stereotype we have of them now and have had in the past.

The number of independent schools in England remains at around 2,400. There is a turnover of about 100 each year. Schools range vastly in size, ethos and provision. The sector includes day schools, boarding schools and special schools for children with special educational needs, which the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, mentioned. It includes schools with a specific religious ethos, and minority faiths are very well catered for, as my noble friend Lord Black, I think, pointed out. Some of these schools are very small and draw on a local community for their pupils and for their support. Minority ethnic communities are also well represented. Some schools are very well endowed financially, while others seem to get by on a shoestring.

We are also aware that the independent sector is a force for social change. Indeed, most independent schools place great value on community service. I declare an interest as I speak about Manchester Grammar School because my son attended it. It has a very high academic achievement and many of the pupils go on to attend Russell Group universities, yet the school still ensures that pupils are involved in the community that it serves—inner-city Manchester—which includes some of the poorest communities in the country. The activities include paired reading in the local primary school, teaching English as an additional language, recycling schemes, charitable donations, gardening, and work with special schools, which my son got involved with. That all contributes to the sort of inclusive society which we want to see.

MGS also has a huge bursary fund—I think it is around £10 million; I will be corrected if that is wrong but it is certainly substantial—making it very socially diverse and, indeed, ethnically diverse. I think almost 60% of its pupils are from ethnic backgrounds. It has always seemed to me the very epitome of an incredibly cohesive school community. Of course, most schools offer bursaries and more than a fifth of pupils get help with their fees. So in addition to the scholarships available to children with exceptional talents—for example, in music or the arts—many more children benefit from the academic rigour of independent schools because of the financial help they receive.

I will now turn to some of the specific points that noble Lords made. My noble friend Lord Hodgson talked about a facilities arms race that might lead to higher fees. That might be true but surely it has to be a matter for the schools themselves. Of course, if the facilities are better, they might be justified in charging a higher premium but that is for them to make a decision on. My noble friend Lord Storey talked about the 7% of pupils who go to private schools ending up as the high achievers of our society. I think that goes to the heart of this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned the very point that my noble friend Lord Hodgson touched upon—that you cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. It is about bringing up the attainment of our state schools as well as promoting what our private schools offer.

The approach of this Government to reforming the schools system—to give schools greater freedoms around teaching, teacher training and how they are run—has been noticeable over the period of this Government. My noble friend Lord Storey talked about Liverpool College, which used to be a private school and is now an incredibly successful academy. I can point to an example in Manchester: William Hulme’s Grammar School used to be a private school. Since it has become a state school, you could argue that it is a more successful school and it is certainly attracting more pupils.

There have been a lot of contributions about the partnerships with the state sector. The Government are very supportive of these partnerships, as the Secretary of State and my noble friend Lord Nash have made clear. At the recent ISSP seminar they were told in no uncertain terms that, for partnerships to be successful, they should be developed through building relationships of trust and integrity and not be imposed from the centre. However, ISSPs can make a difference. We have recently provided funding for 18 new primary-level partnerships. We have made available a modest amount of funding—less than £200,000—to assist primary schools around the country to improve subject teaching at primary and prep school level, with specific emphasis on subjects such as maths, science and modern foreign languages. There is good evidence that they are making a difference. I will give just one or two examples, because I am aware that time is pressing on.

The King’s College School in Wimbledon works in partnership with 27 state schools. To give a small taste of what this involves, pupils from King’s are given the opportunity to teach lessons such as Latin, music and sport at local primary, secondary and special schools. Sometimes they act as classroom assistants, but in some cases they actually lead the class, of course under the supervision of the King’s staff. The impact on results has been remarkable, with the average number of pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE going up from 49% to just under 67% over a five-year period.

My noble friend Lord Lingfield talked specifically about independent special schools and we recognise how very valuable these are. They often provide specialist care for children with profound needs and include 170 such schools which are dual-registered as children’s homes. Through Section 41 we will be able to approve a number of schools to receive a funding arrangement, as for special academies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, talked about the dominance of the independent sector. I reiterate that this is about bringing standards in state schools up and not bringing standards in the private sector down. It is not a good situation when there is such a disparity of achievement between the public and independent sectors, and the Government are putting their money where their mouth is over funding for educational improvements. We have provided significant additional funding through the pupil premium—almost £1.9 billion in 2013-14, which will increase to £2.5 billion in 2014-15.

In conclusion, we want all pupils, regardless of the type of school they attend or their background, to achieve the highest quality, world-class education, of which this country is rightly proud. Through our education reforms—more academies and free schools and greater accountability—we are transforming the state system to ensure that every pupil has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential. A final point: we do not have any plans to withdraw charitable status from private schools. I think we have made great inroads in the partnerships between the private and state sectors. I thank all noble Lords for the part they have played in this debate.

Committee adjourned at 7.29 pm.