It's the class size that counts

Parents are willing to sacrifice holidays and remortgage their homes to have their children educated privately. The reason is not academic achievement, but the pupil-teacher ratio, says Clare Hargreaves
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The Independent Online

Private schools are successfully convincing parents that flogging, fagging and draughty dorms now belong strictly to the world of fiction. Although last year's massive hike in fees dampened demand, the number of parents choosing a private education for their children has risen for the ninth year in a row.

Private schools are successfully convincing parents that flogging, fagging and draughty dorms now belong strictly to the world of fiction. Although last year's massive hike in fees dampened demand, the number of parents choosing a private education for their children has risen for the ninth year in a row.

"We're seeing more and more first-time buyers," says Sami Cohen, the principal of d'Overbroeck's College in Oxford. "A lot of parents who went to state schools themselves are now sending their children to independent schools, where they believe that their needs will be recognised and they'll get the attention they need. Our parents aren't just lawyers and bankers. We have plumbers and garage-owners, too."

A survey by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) revealed that a third of sixth- form leavers from independent schools come from families in which neither parent is a university graduate, and almost half come from families in which neither parent has been educated at a private school.

Heads report many parents going without holidays, or remortgaging their homes to give their children a private education. "People work very hard to achieve what they feel is important," says Cohen. "They're prepared to make sacrifices."

With boarding fees averaging £5,909 a term, and day fees £2,429 - and more at big-name schools such as Eton and Harrow - the sacrifice, except for the very wealthy, can be huge. But many schools are trying to widen access by stepping up the number of scholarships and bursaries they give. Martin Stephen, who has just taken over as high master of St Paul's, raised over £10m in bursary funds during his time in charge of Manchester Grammar, and is determined to continue the process. "Schools like ours, which offer specialist skills, should be available to all, regardless," he says. "Access is a crucial issue."

Recent years have seen a shift from scholarships, which are not means-tested and are awarded for excellence, to bursaries, which are based on a parent's ability to pay. The bursary system, which effectively recycles the fees paid by richer parents, means financial help is given to those families who most need it. Many schools also dispense bursaries to families who hit hard times while a pupil is at school. Nearly a third of pupils at private schools currently get help with fees, a fact that Stephen says is often overlooked in national debate. "It's often inconvenient for critics to recognise figures like that. The independent sector suffers from perceptions which are different from reality."

The move to widen access comes as independent schools' charitable status comes under scrutiny ahead of parliament's forthcoming bill. Schools hope that by casting their social net wider, and by sharing their facilities with local state schools and communities, they will be able to prove that they are directly charitable. They argue that by educating over seven per cent of the population, so saving the taxpayer £2bn a year, they are also providing public benefit in an indirect way.

So why are parents still willing to go to such lengths to buy their children a private education? Perhaps surprisingly, the key selling point appears to be not academic achievement but class size. The teacher-to-pupil ratio in the private sector is 1:10, compared to 1:17 in the state sector. D'Overbroeck's, for instance, has a ceiling of eight at sixth-form level. The smaller ratio means pupils get individual attention, and bullying and discipline problems are nipped in the bud. "Whereas in some state schools children can coast on the fringes, in a small class it's impossible to be anonymous. You're under the spotlight all the time," says Jan Scarrow, headmistress of Badminton School, Bristol, where sixth-form classes usually have 10 to 12 pupils. "If there's a problem it's picked up instantly. Discipline problems are rare. There's no time-wasting, which means staff can teach. They remain passionate about their subject."

Paul Moyses, who switched from a comprehensive to d'Overbroeck's private school in Oxford, says the difference between the two was staggering. "My state school was oppressive towards people who were interested in learning rather than in causing trouble. I was bullied because I was bright and I worked, whereas at d'Overbroeck's there was loads of support for bright students and they gave me specialist tuition to help me prepare to apply to Cambridge."

Academically, independent schools continue to hold up well against maintained schools, even though they are often non-selective. Independent Schools Council figures show that more than 80 per cent of pupils at independent schools gain five or more GCSE passes with grades A* to C, compared with a national average of 49 per cent. Nine out of 10 post-A-level leavers go on to university, while in the state sector the figure is just over one in four.

But the activities that children do outside the classroom - like sport, drama, music and art - appear to be just as important to parents. Boarding schools, of course, have the advantage of offering more time for these activities to be enjoyed. Sports facilities and coaching are becoming more professional, especially at schools like Millfield, one of the country's largest co-educational boarding schools. Gone are the days when a school master taught a class then led a team onto the sports field; today coaches are often professionals brought in from outside. In the Rugby World Cup, eight out of 22 of the England squad, including Jonny Wilkinson, were public-school educated.

Music and drama have also become increasingly sophisticated, especially at schools like Bedales, which has built an art gallery and a multi-million-pound Olivier theatre-cum-concert hall, named after the actor, whose children attended the school. Some 373 instrumental music lessons are taught each week - an average of almost one per pupil. At Badminton 88 per cent of its 392 pupils study at least one instrument and its head, Scarrow, says pupils are often encouraged to learn to play an instrument instead of taking an extra A-level. In addition, Bedales offers novel extras like Outdoor Work, whereby pupils get involved in managing the school's estate. Bedales also boasts a tradition in design and furniture making that dates back to the time when a former pupil, Edward Barnsley, helped build its famous Arts and Crafts library. More recently, David Linley continued the tradition as a pupil.

Vicky Tuck, head of Cheltenham Ladies College, which has a strong tradition in the arts, says, "In the state sector there's far too much measuring and testing. Education is about more than academic achievement. Pupils learn about themselves and develop enthusiasms. We hope to turn out decent, rounded people, not just people who have a string of As."

Above all, independent schools, particularly those with a strong boarding element, foster a sense of community, says Tuck. Pupils make friends for life. "One of the dreadful legacies of the Thatcher era was the focus on the individual. People lost their sense of community. Boarding is about learning how to live in a community. The girls learn that not everything will go their way, that they're not the centre of the universe. We produce cooperative, positive and motivated people." Community service is also now a prominent part of the life of many independent schools, she adds.

Around one in seven pupils at independent schools now board. The figures have recently dipped slightly, having previously been given a shot in the arm by Harry Potter and his friends. Boarding today is a far cry from the life of Latin primers and grim incarceration such as that depicted in books like Tom Brown's Schooldays. Accommodation is vastly improved, with individual study bedrooms often the norm at sixth-form level. Many schools use first-name terms between pupils and staff, and parental access is far more relaxed, with parents and children likely to spend weekends together four or five times a term. Cohen, from d'Overbroeck's, believes that giving sixth-form boarders a high degree of independence pays dividends later on: "Our students cope far better with the transition to university than students who have been guided by bells and rules."

Boarding schools have adapted to changing lifestyles. There's been an increase in weekly boarding, and parents now rarely live more than a two- or three-hour drive away. Also on the rise is occasional boarding, whereby day pupils stay the odd night if their parents go away. Where a school takes both day pupils and borders, day pupils are able to stay at school until well into the evening, which is often far more practical for working parents.

Largely gone, too, are the days when children, usually boys, were deposited at boarding school at the age of seven. Most now start far later - often at 13 or 16 - perhaps partly due to the fact that parents now have to fund their children at the other end, at university, too.

Critics accuse independent schools of being elitist but Martin Stephen rebuffs the charge. "It's very different if you replace the word 'elitism' with the word 'specialism'," he says. "Independent schools offer specialist skills. They offer excellence. I don't believe we should be ashamed of that."

As long as private schools provide a service that people want, they're here to stay, says Stephen. The independent sector, he says, is like an "annoying auntie" whose voice doesn't go away. "It's been a nagging voice in the face of negative change. It deserves some credit. It shows you can't do education on the cheap." Now, he says, it's about time we saw independent schools as an integral part of British Education plc.