Independent education – what’s it all about?
Charlotte Vere, executive director of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), writes the foreword to John Catts ‘Which School? 2016’
Let’s be honest. An independent education for your son or daughter doesn’t come cheap. For most people, paying for their children to attend a fee-charging school involves sacrifice. So why is it worth every penny?
It’s a question I have asked myself when it comes to my own children’s education, and I’m sure it’s one asked by many parents who examine the pages of this directory and spend their weekends attending open day after open day.
For some of you, the decision to choose an independent education for your child is already made and your dilemma is a matter of which independent school. That in itself can present enough challenges. But for many more, the choice you face is much more fundamental: do you go state or independent?
I’m a great believer in allowing facts and figures to speak for themselves but deciding which school to entrust with your child goes way beyond data; having examined all the facts, the final decision – as with most purchases – relies just as much on your heart as your head.
What is it that makes independent schools so special?
It’s worth stopping to think what that word ‘independent’ really means. Sending your child to a truly independent school is to send them to a school that is directly accountable to you, the parents.
Truly independent schools are not subject to the whims of politicians in the same way as state sector schools which, despite new-found and limited freedoms, must still conform to tightly controlled and sometimes changing government expectations. Truly independent schools can defer to the experience and expertise of their staff to create a highly innovative and relevant curriculum that focuses on the needs of its pupils. They manage their own finances and can allocate resources where they best meet pupil need, with almost no governmental interference.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of independence is that it breeds a highly diverse sector which is great news when it comes to picking a school. As a parent, you have real choice. Each independent school really is different and there will always be one that suits your individual child.
Everyone is used to hearing that independent schools produce excellent academic results. And they do. Over half of A Level entries at ISC* schools are awarded A* or A grades and one in every fourteen ISC school A Level candidates achieve three or more A* grades. When they leave school, 92% of ISC students progress to higher education, usually at the top universities in the UK and abroad.
But the icing on the cake is the excellence that independent schools deliver in other ways; they go beyond the purely academic to educate the whole child. And because they’ve got freedom over their school day and the way they approach what pupils learn, independent schools have the time and enthusiasm to deliver additional support, outstanding pastoral care systems and teaching methods that focus on and develop each child.
Exactly how this manifests itself may be different from school to school. For your son or daughter, it might mean extra attention to develop an extraordinary talent. Some Girls’ Schools Association schools, for example, have established special support programmes to help talented athletes to maintain their studies at the same time as pursuing rigorous training schedules as elite sportswomen. Some schools are particularly adept at helping children with disabilities and special educational needs. Most deliver a powerful range of extra-curricular activities that can develop your child’s world view, nurture their artistic ability, get them building robots and enable them to start profit-making companies.
It’s always astounding to see what pupils in independent schools do, in addition to getting good results in exams. And that should be your yardstick when assessing which school is right for your child. I know of a girls’ school where students have invented a potentially life-saving system to help Network Rail prevent on-track deaths and injuries. Another where pupils’ artistic work has been displayed at the Saatchi Gallery. The examples are endless. And all these achievements go hand in hand with GCSE and A Level success – this is the excellence of the independent sector.
Making a contribution to society
93% of ISC schools are involved in partnerships with other schools and their local community. 110 ISC schools sponsor state schools, with inter-school mentoring and other projects commonplace. And 403 ISC schools open their doors to pupils from state sector schools so they can attend lessons or educational events such as Oxbridge application briefings. Beyond this, children who attend independent schools are routinely involved in helping and raising funds for charities at home and abroad.
For your child, this means that their world view is constantly being challenged and the notion of making a positive contribution becomes every bit as important as applying themselves to their studies. Through this, plus the school’s House system, your child also learns how to work as one of a team with people who may be different from themselves; a vital skill for future life.
An international perspective
If your son or daughter attends an independent boarding school they will almost certainly be mixing with some of the 35,000 students from other countries who attend ISC schools. As a consequence, boarding pupils develop an international perspective that stands them in good stead for making their mark in the global economy or simply taking a world view on issues of the day.
Friendships made in boarding schools tend to last a life time, crossing boundaries of geography, time and culture. It’s an experience you cannot provide your child in any other way.
Why choose an independent education? Because it’s worth it.
Charlotte Vere is Executive Director of the Girls’ Schools Association and former Interim General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council.