So now we are to blame for Brexit?
When I saw the headline to Melissa Benn’s article in The Guardian yesterday, I thought it must be a satirical spoof by someone like The Daily Mash or Newsthump. “Brexit, austerity, economic woe: it’s time to make private schools pay”. For a long time now, our sector has been the soft target, go-to enemy for politicians and journalists alike. Our families make up only 7% of the population and most people have an outdated, rhetoric-fuelled sense of what we do, so it’s easy to gain support by having a go at us. But are we really single-handedly responsible for all of those problems? Personally, I wasn’t aware of being behind any of them.
Of course, a handful of Bullingdon Club members may well deserve the heat and the people who have been most let down by them are easily led to associate all of independent education with those privileged few. I know I am wasting my breath to say that I am fed up with being linked with them. I suspect most Etonians would say the same thing. However, if some incredibly wealthy individuals have made some poor choices for the sake of power over the years, why is it their school that’s specifically to blame? The individuals to whom Benn refers would have been incredibly wealthy and privileged without Eton behind them and, if that inequality of opportunity is the issue, then taxing private schools to the point where many close is not the solution.
In actual fact, if Melissa Benn were to visit my school and speak to the pupils there, I think she would find that they had a lot more in common with her than she suspected. To start with, they are all female, very many from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and almost a fifth pay virtually no fees to the school because they receive means tested bursaries. These young women have nothing to do with the white, male elite to whom Benn refers. They are feeling disenfranchised too and would like to make a difference. Crucially, we are educating them to do that.
The real sadness, however, of this bashing of the independent sector, is that it creates a ‘them and us’ where we are held accountable for everything that’s wrong with the British education system generally and the real issues are masked. The reality is, we think there are problems too and we could all be working together to tackle the key issues. If you ask me what the real stumbling blocks are for young people going through the education system right now, I would cite the volatility of exam marking, curriculum reform pushed through too quickly by the Gove administration, the near destruction of the performing arts in the state sector and, above all, the cost of university tuition fees. If you add to this the teacher recruitment crisis, then we have a lot to get our heads together on. All of the above are at risk of making education a lottery for all our pupils and I am confident that all schools would like to address them. We would be stronger if we did so together.
Sally-Anne Huang, Headmistress, James Allen’s Girls’ School