Education: Does it pay to go private?: High expectations and freedom from passing fashion: Tony Evans, Headmaster of an independent school

Click to follow
MORE than half the children entering independent schools in the 1990s come from families where neither parent attended such a school, including a growing majority who make sharp sacrifices to educate their children at great expense. Why do they forgo holidays and cars for years on end or remortgage their homes to do so? It seems a high price to pay for the alleged privilege of snobbery, not least since the competitive labour market and the prestigious universities rightly select on strict merit and the old boy network no longer leads to power.

The answer surely lies in the meaning and exercise of independence. An independent school enjoys the freedom to thrive or wither according to its own decisions and to reject the imposed fashions of the day and the interference of politicians and educational dogma. Independent schools are not political footballs and are not kicked into a net of bureaucracy, contradiction and uncertainty.

However the benefits of the national curriculum are ultimately perceived, the chaotic process of its implementation has provided one illustration of the priceless value of independence - the independence to reject, for the benefit of pupils, the mindless motion of change which besets the state sector. Despite their stress and diminishing resources, colleagues in the state sector have battled valiantly against these odds and none of us in independent schools should gainsay their devotion or professionalism. But stability and continuity, even security, are far from guaranteed.

Independent schools, spared such unnecessary disadvantage, can concentrate on nurturing precisely those educational qualities which parents most strongly and publicly value: consistency in standards of discipline; determined academic emphasis; certainty of resources; the cultivation of a work ethic; extra-curricular breadth, so badly eroded by the 1,265 hours in the state sector; freedom from industrial action; the expectation that time will be devoted to pupils well beyond official hours; smaller classes; traditional values; social responsibility and personal confidence.

In order to flourish, independent schools must respond sensitively to parents' aspirations and establish a genuine partnership. It does not mean they must acquiesce in every respect, but an independent head and governors are directly accountable. With that understanding of parental priorities firmly in mind, an independent school can determine its own ethos and, if it so chooses, eschew the narrowly utilitarian or bureaucratic constraints thrust upon state schools. Parents instinctively seek a school which is right for their child, academically and pastorally. Despite all claims and charters, this is as yet far from possible in the state sector. It is no consolation to know that the ideal state school for one's child is not accessible.

Yet while independent schools' pre-eminence in examination results is again confirmed at GCSE and A-level, it is the variety within the independent sector which is its strength, from denominational schools, music, ballet and drama schools, schools for special needs, coeducational and single-sex schools, to bustling former Direct Grant day schools and rural boarding schools.

Nor should one be misled by the myth that independent schools provide no social or racial diversity. The playground outside as I write is more mixed than at the state grammar school I attended as a boy. The distinguishing factor in independent schools remains their quality of expectation and their freedom to act, unencumbered by fashion and dogmas.

The author is headmaster of the Portsmouth Grammar School and chairman of the Headmasters' Conference Academic Policy Committee.