Opening the doors of our school – within our limitations

I think it’s fair to presume we all agree that the current education system is not providing all children with the same quality of education, and that families on lower incomes have less ability than others to change their children’s educational opportunities.

This may be due to higher house prices closer to better state schools or the cost of tutoring which, rightly or wrongly, parents do tend to believe will help their children when it comes to entrance assessments for grammar or independent schools. It may be due to a lack of choice in terms of types of schools and their ability to meet individual needs, and not being able to afford independent school fees may also play a part. Whichever of these might be relevant, income and educational opportunities are often linked.

In an attempt to address this inequality the government released a Green Paper, Schools that work for everyone, in which the success of independent schools was recognised and the sector was asked to do more to level the playing field. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) responded to the government’s Green Paper, in partnership with a group of independent sector associations, with a proposal to:

  • create up to 10,000 free independent school places every year for children from limited income families (partly funded by the government, by no more than it would pay for each child in the state sector, with the independent sector absorbing the remaining costs);
  • grow existing relationships and mutually beneficial collaborative work between independent and state schools;
  • set up or sponsor new state schools, to create more good state school places.

Last week ISC chairman, Barnaby Lennon, explained that “by helping create more good school places, both in state and independent schools, [the independent sector] would be helping to expand real social mobility in this country.” Of course, many independent schools that are able to already offer bursaries for free or subsidised places. Many are also working collaboratively with local state schools to provide opportunities that may otherwise not be afforded to students outside of the independent sector.

Our school is testament to this. Our Sister Christopher Bursary Fund is dedicated to supporting students in completing their education at our school when their families have not been able to cover the fees. We work with the Spring Board Bursary Foundation and the HMC Scholarship initiative to offer fully funded places to students. We also regularly invite students into our school to participate in academic and extra-curricular opportunities, for instance after-school Classical Greek GCSE classes or the Cambridge Classical Association Latin and Greek Junior Reading competition. Should we be doing more? I’m sure we should.

I think it is essential to recognise, however, that independent schools vary in their capacity to invest in such projects. There will be many that do not have the funding or resources to pursue all of the sector’s proposals to government. Very few, for instance, will be able to afford to sponsor more state schools. With this in mind, it’s important to address some misconceptions about how the independent sector is financed – as I have previously written. Independent schools typically generate only a very small surplus each year (from fees alone) after day-to-day running costs are accounted for, and often do not have enough funds available to cover out of the ordinary projects or to maintain and renovate the portfolio of school property and grounds, which fee-paying parents justifiably expect to see being well maintained.

By no means, then, does it go without saying that independent schools have the financial capacity to award fully funded places to the extent that they might wish. So you would think that the government would want to snap up the independent sector’s offer to top up the basic state school student funding in order to broaden access and educate low income students, at no extra cost to the taxpayer; the proposal is in fact fiscally neutral for the government. As Pope Francis said in 2014, we must “not be disheartened in the face of the difficulties that the educational challenge presents! Educating is not a profession but an attitude, a way of being; in order to educate it is necessary to step out of ourselves and be among young people to accompany them in the stages of their growth.”

I would open our doors to many more girls who could benefit from a St Mary’s School, Cambridge education, but I can only do so within our financial limitations, as is true with any other responsible charity or business. The government must understand, then, that for independent schools to truly play a role in expanding social mobility, we must be allowed to continue in our particular ‘way of being’, and to contribute according to our capacity, rather than be chastised or penalised for the good work that we already do.


Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s School, Cambridge

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