or some families, independent education is more out of reach than ever.

The Arms Race in Education

Peter Tait
January 8th 2018

Over recent years there has been a change in the demography of parents accessing an independent school education. The professional classes, once the backbone of such schools, have found their alma mater priced out of the range for their own children and only available to those who have family money or new money  -  mainly new buyers from abroad. Since 2004, independent school fees have risen by over 70%, due in part to the extra bureaucratic demands placed on schools in extra staffing for human resources, compliance and health and safety as well as teachers’ salaries, but much more significantly because of the arms race they have entered into for better facilities and services in order to compete with their neighbours.  Ralph Lucas, editor of The Good Schools Guide warned last year that in their efforts to attract the international super-rich who are drawn to a British public-school education, they are spending more on new facilities, noting that where “schools used to show off their swimming pool, now they show off their theatres, fitness studios and recording suites.” 

With fees for boarders at around £1000 per school week (and that out of net income), it is evident that the pendulum has swung too far, leading to the warning by Lord Lucas that “These schools will soon be solely populated by fee-assisted pupils from low-income families and the offspring of the super-rich”

Traditionally, our view of boarding schools is that they were rather Spartan with cold, draughty dormitories and austere classrooms, focused on providing a classical education and team games. All that has changed as elite boarding schools now boast, in some instances, individual rooms with en-suites and a standard of catering comparable to that found in the very best restaurants.

The significant change, however, has been in the increased spending on new and improved facilities by a number of the elite schools, to cater for a more diverse student body, but also to help widen their market reach.  This has resulted in an unparalleled building spree to provide sporting and cultural facilities to a scale and standard comparable with similar facilities anywhere in the world.  Not surprisingly, while maintaining their traditional advantage in securing places at the Russell group of universities, in the judiciary, the military, Civil Service and politics, there has also been a significant increase in independent school alumni finding successful careers in drama, music and sport.

We have all seen the headlines: ‘Private schools upstage the West End with Cutting-Edge Theatres’  which accompanied a survey by the Sunday Times earlier this year found that of the 236 private schools in London, 59 have theatres compared with the West End’s 42. The theatre at the Godolphin and Latymer School has a converted grade II listed church featuring “overhead rigging, horizontal adjustable acoustic sails, performance lighting and sound and varying floor platforms” for concerts, dramas and musicals; nearby Notting Hill and Ealing High, has a 100-seat theatre “complete with state-of-the-art lighting and sound” as part of £15m renovations in 2013; while Eton “has a professional-standard 400-seat theatre with a fly tower – the Farrer – and two studio theatres, capable of mounting 30 productions a year.”  So for parents with children with thespian ambitions, they are now spoilt for choice. Small wonder that such schools can boast amongst their alumni such luminaries as Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Damian Lewis and Dominic West.

In music, also, many schools now boast state of the art recording studios and music schools. This year’s Glastonbury Festival was notable for the number of artists with public school backgrounds who were on stage: artists such as Laura Marling and Grace Chatto joining such well-known artists like Jamie Callum and Ed Sherrin. Recently 50% of the top acts on the charts were from independent schools, a far cry from the music of the sixties and seventies.

Sport has always been an area of advantage and Millfield has traditionally led the way with an all-weather athletics track, Olympic size pool and indoor tennis centre as well as a significant number of nationally ranked sportsmen and women as well as a stellar list of sporting alumni.  Other schools, however, are not far behind.  The sporting amenities that Wellington College advertise on their website gives some idea of the scale of their enterprise.  ‘With 16 rugby and football pitches; 2 floodlit AstroTurf pitches; a modern, well-equipped Sports Hall; indoor and outdoor swimming pools; 22 hard tennis courts; 9 cricket pitches; 2 lacrosse pitches; 8 netball courts; a gym; a dance studio; basketball/volleyball courts; a newly refurbished rackets court; squash and badminton courts; a brand-new Real Tennis court; a climbing wall; a shooting range and a nationally acclaimed nine-hole golf course all within our 400-acre campus, provision for sport at Wellington is truly second to none.”  Hear, hear!

The effects of this investment in infrastructure in sporting facilities has been reflected in the results its alumni have achieved in recent years. When Sally Jones commented in 2016, ‘It is no coincidence that a third of Britain’s medalists in the last two Olympic Games were educated in independent schools’ there was an inevitable outcry from the Sutton Trust that more and more areas of public life were falling victim to the superior facilities and opportunities afforded children in public schools. Most of these medals were won in sports that were expensive to facilitate and maintain -  yachting, rowing, equestrian, hockey and swimming - which many leading schools now offer as the norm (the fact that 2012 Olympic rowing events were conducted on Eton’s own rowing course being a good marker).

Many schools have invested in extra specialist staff, often of national standing: drama producers, musicians, artists or writers in residents, national sports coaches and the like. The attraction of such specialisation is reinforced by trips abroad or links with professional companies or associations and many a school prospectus or magazine reads like a travel brochure with numerous trips flying off to distant climes in search of opportunities for performance or sport that they could just possibly get at home, even ‘up north’.

Of course, ISC is right to argue, through their Chairman, Barnaby Lenon, that many of the facilities are “designed to host assemblies, plays, lectures, concerts — they are not used solely as theatres,” and that “Hundreds of ISC schools are involved in music, art and drama partnerships with state schools’ citing the latest ISC census which noted that 590 schools are engaged in drama partnerships and 641 in music partnerships with local schools.”

However, this is scant consolation for those many families for whom independent education is now more out of reach than ever. Thankfully, not all independent schools have been caught up in this race for advantage  – some, no doubt, because they want to remain true to their traditional constituency and others simply because they do not have the wherewithal to do so. It all feeds into what we are seeing at present with a number of leading independent schools belying their charitable status by focusing on financial and business considerations,  at home and abroad, with their students increasingly seen as consumers, purchasing advantage and opportunity in whatever areas interest them. And who can blame the schools if they see their future existence dependent on such initiatives.

Perhaps the last word should go to Tony Little, past headmaster of Eton, who suggested that  less well-off parents might consider “no-frills” alternatives to the top-tier boarding schools’  leaving the traditional independent schools to harvest new seas by providing facilities unparalleled anywhere else in the world to those who can afford them.


Peter Tait is a former Head of a leading UK public school and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board

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