Lucy Hodges: Public-school myths we don't need

The independent sector has every right to complain - but not like this
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The Independent Online

Perhaps we should not be surprised that private schools are angry and fighting back – and that they are doing so on behalf of fine, upstanding parents who work hard and pay their taxes but choose to pay fees.

This week they made it clear – via Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference which represents the top independent schools – that they'd had enough of the politics of the last 12 years. Parents who send their children to private schools are being made to feel like traitors, he said. Instead, added the headmaster of St Albans School, people should be grateful to them for saving the state sector money and providing officers to lead the British army.

None of this is new. But what is different about this week's tirade is its tone and language. One of the things that Labour did to annoy the private schools most was to change charity law. Now the schools must justify the charitable status that gives them up to £100m a year. This means, among other things, that they have to provide more bursaries for children who can't afford the fees – that is, they must rob Peter to pay Paul. And the Charity Commission has already found two schools wanting for providing too few bursaries.

The threat that hangs over them is the well-tried medieval one of confiscation of land and property, said Grant, grasping at the most over-the-top image he could think of. Inveighing against Labour for forcing universities to take more students from low-performing state schools at the expense of those from posh schools, he said ministers were putting pressure on universities to socially engineer their intake according to criteria other than proven academic ability.

Such sentiments have been aired before. Independent schools have every right to complain if they think the new charity law is being implemented too arbitrarily or if they feel their students are unjustly missing out on university places. But why did Grant have to choose such language for his assault on the government? Was it because he saw it so visibly leaching power or did he simply want some cheap headlines? Or was it that he thought he was accurately representing the views of parents? If the latter, he is sorely mistaken.

How can it be in the interests of fee-paying parents or the independent sector to resurrect the myth of public schools turning out army officers to lead the troops in far-flung bits of the world? This may still be largely true, but it does them no favours. Most independent schools want to be seen to provide a broad, academically rigorous education in as inclusive as possible an atmosphere.

If the independent school heads want to play a role in education policy-making, as they once did, they will need to pay more attention to the tone they employ and make a careful judgement of the political mood. Only seven per cent of children attend independent schools in the UK, yet critics are worried that their products dominate areas of our national life, including judges and newspaper editors.

The independent sector ought to be sensitive to such concerns, and to do what it can to help struggling state schools with their superior teaching and resources, so that more children get A-levels and go to university. Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's School in London, understands this. So do many other independent school heads. Andrew Grant, it appears, does not.

Lucy Hodges is editor of The Independent's Education & Careers supplement