Education: If we have to pay for the best, so be it: Ministers should learn a lesson from middle-class parents' willingness to fork out for education, argues Colin Hughes

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The Independent Online
JOHN RAE, one of the most controversial and best-known public school headteachers of recent times, vividly describes in his recent memoirs his own ambivalence towards the institutions in which he spent a lifetime.

'I would have fought hard to defend Westminster's freedom, but when the boys and girls from the local state schools paid a visit and I watched the state and the public school pupils trying to make contact with one another - both groups wary as if they were from different countries - I could not help thinking that the public schools did not merely reflect divisions in our society, as I had so often argued in debate, but were instrumental in keeping those divisions alive.

'If the children of the duke and the dustman attended the same school, no differences of wealth or ancestry could make them treat one another as foreigners.'

Some Britons are devoted to the principle of paid-for independent schooling, others are equally passionately opposed to it. Most, however, are probably trapped in the middle ground, where a belief in individual liberty clashes irresolvably with the broader social interest. They resent the privilege that independent education buys and the social division it fosters, while recognising that its abolition would infringe parents' rights unacceptably.

John Rae's ambivalence was more extreme than most; after all, he was attacking public school privilege and the government's Assisted Places scheme at more or less the same time that he was applying for a job as Master of Eton College. But his personal dilemma is reflected across a wide range of parents, educators and politicians, who find intricate ways of ducking the problem - by convincing themselves that private schooling would be unnecessary if state schools were better, by taking on a larger mortgage to 'buy' a better state school, or by offering and accepting state subsidies to support less wealthy children in private schools.

People naturally like to feel consistent in their public and private beliefs, so their ambivalence about paid-for schooling usually provokes acute discomfort. But it also serves a useful purpose. The freedom for parents to choose independent schools places a constant pressure on the state sector; good local state schools threaten the private-sector market. Within that conflict, parents are able to demonstrate to policy- makers what they most value educationally: smaller classes, higher expectations, broad learning, better discipline, and so on.

In other words, we can learn a lot about parents' educational demands from the way they behave towards the private market. In that context, this week's census of fee-paying schools from the Independent Schools Information Service provides fascinating evidence.

Private education is becoming a fast- moving and very flexible market. As boarding numbers slump, schools are either dropping boarding altogether, offering alternative forms, such as weekly boarding, or drastically improving the quality of boarding care. As the numbers in preparatory schools continue falling, more are launching 'pre-prep' classes, meeting a burgeoning demand for pre-school education, particularly among working mothers. Moreover, private schools have hugely increased the funds that they set aside to help less well-off parents: scholarships and bursaries are paid out to more than 16 per cent of pupils, double the proportion 10 years ago.

Most commentators expected that this 30-month recession would lead to far more school closures, and a much larger reduction in the numbers of children attending private schools. In fact, pupil numbers have fallen by 1.5 per cent this year, largely because of the big increase in pre-prep places, increasing demand for independent sixth-form education and the switch to day schools. Although 79 schools have closed, 74 have opened. And it is almost exclusively the small, less educationally successful prep schools that have been ploughing off the rails.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is that numbers have held up in the face of large successive fee increases. For some years now, independent schools have on average increased their fees at roughly three times the rate of inflation. This year, we learn, the average increase may be less wounding to the middle-class purse: 4 or 5 per cent, perhaps.

Steep fee increases have been necessary because private schools must retain quality staff by offering competitive pay to teachers, recruit more teachers to keep their class sizes down and offer a wider curricular range, and continue enhancing their buildings and facilities. They must, in other words, balance the risk of becoming overpriced against keeping ahead of the state sector on quality.

This recession has hit many middle- class households hard. Yet those parents have proved willing to make deep sacrifices before they consider reverting to state education. Not only do they cancel foreign holidays and other luxuries, some even move home, to obtain a lower mortgage so they can continue to afford fees. So, while independent schools are responding more flexibly to their market, parents have convincingly demonstrated their commitment.

Many conclusions can be drawn from this picture, but one seems inescapable. Parents do not merely buy private education for the sake of social advantage; they also regard it as a genuine investment in learning. It is not so much state schools which can learn from that, but ministers. As independent schools are fond of arguing, if they were abolished overnight it would cost the taxpayer more than pounds 1bn extra to educate those pupils being privately funded. Turn the argument around: if the Government added pounds 1bn to state schools' budgets overnight, it seems quite likely that parents would happily pay the necessary extra tax. Ministers question whether more money makes better schools; the behaviour of parents in the private sector shows that they have no such doubts.

'Delusions of Grandeur' by John Rae is published by HarperCollins, pounds 16.99. The 'Annual Census 1993' is available from the Independent Schools Information Service, 56 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AG, pounds 5.50.