Despite efforts to widen the diversity of their entry, UK independent schools are never likely to make a significant difference to the social mix in society, according to Peter Tait

The Social Mobility Challenge Facing Independent Schools

Peter Tait
February 26th 2018

Despite efforts to widen the diversity of their entry, UK independent schools are never likely to make a significant difference to the social mix in society, according to Peter Tait...

Sean Fenton, Headmaster of Reigate Grammar School (confusingly an independent school)  and Chairman designate of HMC for 2018 – 2019 has recently been in the news reiterating the offer made by the private schools sector that it will provide 10,000 places for disadvantaged children to assist with social mobility. So  far the offer has been studiously ignored by the Social Mobility Commission and by Government. Nothing is quite that straightforward it seems (the places, for instance would be part-funded by state funding allocated to that child of circa £5,500, the amount it costs the state to educate a pupil), but Fenton is right in presuming that the stony silence which this offer has been met is not economic, but ideological. 

Even though independent schools are cajoled into offering more bursaries, entering into more partnerships and sponsoring more academies than ever, all commendable initiatives  themselves, they are never likely to make a significant difference to the social mix in society. In the face of constant criticism for monopolising the top jobs in Britain as well as giving pupils a head start in such diverse activities as dance, music drama and sport, it is not beholden on independent schools to solve England’s social divide. Nor boarding schools, state and independent, despite the commendable steps to place children in care in their schools so as to offer them some stability and opportunity. Moving people between social groups doesn't address the historic and institutionalized stratification of our society - shuffling the pack will not change that.

Rather than focus on increasing social mobility, the focus should be on breaking down the stratification of society by addressing key areas of social inequality.  This is no easy task in a country where people are defined by their wealth, accents, social groupings and family backgrounds.  Most countries have a system of privilege, but few, if any, are as deeply embedded and institutionalized as ours, where social and political influence is limited to those with wealth or social rank and is often passed down the generations.

Education is, of course, the key, but change cannot only be driven through schools and universities alone without the political will to do so.  A good place to start would be to mount a concerted drive to improve the bad schools we are constantly being told about by a considerable weighting of resources in their favour.  We should look look at the minutae of education, the ability to access extra time, tutors, psychological assessments re-marks and all those resources that can make the difference. In short, we need to take the issue of

cost out of education.  Personal statements, for instance, are often the deciding factor between students at many universities and yet disadvantaged students receive less parental support and can provide fewer examples of work and life experience than their richer peers. Recently the Sutton Trust went even further stating that the current university admissions system is systematically biased against disadvantaged students’ and that ‘ reliance on 'predicted grades' facilitates systematic bias.’  

There is much to do, but haranguing schools to do more is mere tinkering.  To facilitate social mobility, we need to change society - and with all the vested interests working for the status quo, that isn’t happening any time soon.


About the Education Consultant

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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