‘It could be time to consider part government funding’

Independent schools in the UK are under attack, says Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference. Are there lessons to be learnt from Australia’s independent schools, in particular, with how they are funded?

I’m writing this a whole world away from the febrile summer in the UK whilst visiting family in Sydney. I have spent part of my time with heads of independent schools in Australia, reacquainting myself with the opportunities and challenges in a significantly different educational and political jurisdiction. But there are also many parallels with the UK that, I believe, may offer some lessons we can learn about how independent schools might change or be changed.

The most obvious contrast is that the independent sector in Australia is more closely integrated into the national educational system, with about 35% of all pupils across the country enrolled in such schools. As might be expected, independent schools mostly serve the middle classes, but are nevertheless part funded to do so by the government. 

As a result, they are largely seen as contributing positively to the mixed provision of education. They are mainly academically non-selective, popular and successful in terms of turning out well-rounded young people. 

In return for receiving some state funding, they are held to account by the government, but not to such an extent that they relinquish their excellence or independence of thought and action. Regardless of type, for example, all schools are regulated by the same curriculum standards framework administered by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.

Independent schools in Australia are largely charities and, on average, much larger than independent schools in the UK, with many well-known schools spread across multiple campuses, providing an education for thousands of children and young people at a time. Perhaps because of all of this, fees are affordable for many and independent education is seen as something to which many can aspire.

Is the system in Australia perfect? Of course not, but it is worth considering whether any lessons from independent schools in Australia can be applied on the other side of the world.

In return for receiving some state funding, they are held to account by the government, but not to such an extent that they relinquish their excellence or independence of thought and action

Beacons of excellence

In the UK, independent schools are under attack from all sides. Much of the hostility is ill-informed, misdirected and unreasonable – the stereotype of ‘posh, privileged, elitist and out of touch’ is an easy one to repeat even if it is wrong. In reality, UK independent schools are, like their Australian counterparts, internationally regarded as beacons of excellence and innovation.

Moreover, every head of an independent school I know in the UK wishes to extend the opportunities offered by her or his school more widely. This is impossible to do at scale without a combination of more affluent parents willing to accept that an increasing proportion of the fees they pay will be used to support the most disadvantaged pupils and additional UK government funding.

Politically, however, extra government money is unlikely to be forthcoming in the UK unless schools are prepared to allocate some places to the most disadvantaged via, say, an independent admissions organisation. They might also have to admit pupils without academic selection. In short, they are likely to have to accept government oversight to some extent in return for direct funding. It is, I think, possible to achieve such an agreement and it could be the time to consider it; after all, it could transform the contribution of independent education in the UK.

So, what to do? I believe there is room for independent schools to collaborate far more closely with other independent and state schools in their areas to support the needs of the most disadvantaged. Much excellent work is already going on and that can act as a catalyst for more.

Moreover, in order to re-connect with more of the middle classes and ensure a better socioeconomic mix of pupils, charitable independent schools are working hard to hold or even reduce their fees. Whilst increased costs such as the sharp increase in pension scheme contributions will make this extremely challenging for many, it remains an important goal over the next decade. 

No one underestimates the difficulties these changes would create. One way of managing this might be working increasingly in formal or informal groups to minimise costs and amplify impact. I believe that co-operation and collaboration are the keys to independent schools in the UK flourishing in the future.

At the same time, the government could look to commission and fund many more places in the independent sector – at the moment these are largely restricted to children who are looked after or who have special educational needs – so that such places become a natural extension of a mixed educational provision across the UK. 

How might the landscape be changed if 35% or more of children in the UK attended independent schools partly funded by the taxpayer? This is almost certain to require checks and balances of the sort that operate in Australia, alongside the significant boosting of resources and provision in wholly state-funded schools. But the prize is the potential to level up educational excellence and opportunity for all.

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