An education with all the trimmings

Academic results are the unique selling point of fee-paying schools. If state schools do improve, what then?
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If the Government's drive to raise standards in state schools succeeds as well as Messrs Blair and Blunkett hope, this leaves the independent sector in something of a dilemma. Their unique selling point at the moment for many parents is their ability to out-perform the state sector in academic terms. Take that away and what is left to persuade parents to shell out fees for a non-state alternative?

If the Government's drive to raise standards in state schools succeeds as well as Messrs Blair and Blunkett hope, this leaves the independent sector in something of a dilemma. Their unique selling point at the moment for many parents is their ability to out-perform the state sector in academic terms. Take that away and what is left to persuade parents to shell out fees for a non-state alternative?

It is something to which David Hanson, director of education for the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, has been giving much thought. And in an article in the ISIS Magazine, he comes to the slightly surprising conclusion that it may be in the non-academic field that independent schools are best able to compete with an academically reinvigorated state sector.

Mr Hanson's outsider's view of what is happening in the state sector is acerbic: yes, standards are rising in what is measurable, he says, but because of the emphasis on basic skills, on tests and league tables, the curriculum is narrowing and becoming more utilitarian, with great store being placed only on what wins official approval. As a parent, he suggests, in an area with strong state schools, your choice for your child is between a very sound but rather Gradgrind elementary training or having your child educated. "These are profoundly different things and what we are increasingly finding is that parents - more than half of whom are first-time buyers - want their children to be educated."

As an example of what he sees as the Government's mere lip-service to a broad education, Mr Hanson cites their reaction to Professor Ken Robinson's report on cultural education, All Our Futures.

"After lots of encouraging noises and some initiatives, there has been very little real action. For the future, it is likely that it will be the independent sector that will nurture the majority of our musicians, artists and sportsmen and women."

And there is no doubt that the independent sector is increasingly aware that it is not just GCSE and A-level results which parents will compare in future. In schools' efforts to replace the assisted places scheme's intake, bursaries are being offered which emphasise excellence across a wide field. It is quite common now to find scholarships and bursaries available not only for the traditional area of music but also for art and sport.

Millfield School in Somerset, which is renowned for its sporting facilities and coaching, has just announced it is offering scholarships for talented chess-players. A chess selection day will be held in November and at least one scholarship awarded each year. Tuition will be provided by the school's chess coach and chess master, Andrew Martin, with extra coaching from grandmaster Nigel Short.

It is difficult to generalise about how an entire sector of thousands of independent schools differs from the very much larger range of state schools, but an interesting light was cast on the comparison by a recent survey which was conducted for the IAPS. This attempted to define the "real value" that prep schools add to their pupils' education, and comparisons were made with what might be on offer to the same children in primary schools.

One major difference is that prep- school pupils are taught for longer each day and each week than their state-school contemporaries, almost four hours a week longer at Key Stage 1, and five hours a week longer at Key Stage 2. This, the survey concluded, allowed the schools to maintain standards in the basics while not neglecting other areas of the curriculum, some of which, like languages, are hardly taught in primary schools.

Prep schools, the survey showed, are also well-equipped with specialist facilities for science, music, ICT, design technology and, to a lesser extent, drama and art. Fifty-four per cent of prep school children are learning to play a musical instrument and most are taught individually.

Prep school children are also far more likely than their state counterparts to be taught by subject specialists rather then class teachers, even in Key Stage 1. By Year 6, 89 per cent of lessons are taught by specialists.

The time allocated to sport also outstrips the requirements of the National Curriculum. Key Stage 1 pupils spend an average of 3.1 hours a week on sport, rising to 4.8 hours at Key Stage 2. The range of sports on offer is also astonishing. The survey found a total of 30 sports being taught, with athletics, cricket, football, swimming and tennis the most popular.

At secondary level, the discrepancies are if anything even greater. While the state sector has suffered from the sale of playing fields - often to fund replacement buildings - independent schools often boast sports, music and drama facilities that are the envy of their state neighbours.

Bernard Trafford, head of Wolverhampton Grammar School, and a musician himself, believes that most independent schools are now making music, the arts and sport a major selling point. "We have got to the stage where good exam results are taken for granted and you have to ask what else there is to attract parents." Half of the children at Wolverhampton learn to play instruments, and the school has just taken its choir to Prague to perform Carmina Burana.

State primary schools in particular, Mr Trafford thinks, are beleaguered by literacy and numeracy requirements, and similar demands are soon to be made on state secondaries. "Time and money for the arts and sport are very tight," he says. "The teaching of recorders and class singing has died out. The Robinson Report was a cry in the wilderness which the Government has tried to ignore."

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