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Independent school education: “The best investment you will ever make…” May 3, 2011

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Independent Education.
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In this editorial taken from our newly-published Which London School? & the South-East 2011/12, Arthur Bray (chair of the Independent Schools Association and principal of GEMS Hampshire) argues that an independent education for your child is one of the best investments a parent will ever make.

Independent education remains an aspiration for the vast majority of parents across the UK. More so than ever, parents recognise that making the right choice of school is one of their foremost responsibilities. Few do so lightly, as the wrong outcomes can be devastating for the future career prospects of their children and this is made even more acute given the pressure for places at the top universities and the higher grades needed to gain entry.

Independent schools make up around 7% of the total schools in the country, but contribute 40% of students to the top universities. However, independent schools are not just about academic excellence. They recognise that children are successful if they are supported and treated as individuals, whatever their needs. It’s a simple corollary: happy children learn and they are happy if challenged, sustained and nurtured. If children make mistakes on the way, then that’s part of growing up and important lessons can be learned for the future.

Beyond that, children in independent schools benefit from the vast range of extracurricular activities such as sports, after-school clubs, trips and visits, adventurous training and public speaking. Such a broad education gives children additional opportunities to succeed and gain the confidence that will be vital for their future success.

Yet some parents forget that independent schools also provide the moral structure that young people need, through positive discipline and an emphasis on a set of universal values that includes respect for others, hard work and community spirit. Sometimes these values are enshrined in the faith of the school, though elsewhere they may be integral to the nurturing approach of caring and dedicated teachers who are able and willing to give the precious gift of time to the pupils in their care. With such an approach children grow as individuals and flourish, learning what it means to be human while enjoying the success that this brings. In turn, parents take pride in the fact that their children are not only successful in the short run, but are developing the constructive personal traits that will last a lifetime.

Independent schools recognise that parents are increasingly choosing to make sacrifices to educate their children privately. Government cuts are affecting both the public and private sectors, and it is likely that these will bite deeply for many years to come. Independent school fees can start as low as £900 per term (the median is, of  course, much higher at £3150), but even so many parents will be wondering just how they can afford the long-term commitment needed to educate their children in the private sector. Even those in sight of the end with children entering the upper years at school will now be considering the impact of rising university fees on their commitments. In the past, grandparents and extended family contacts have been able to help with fees, though the falling value of some pensions have made this more doubtful.

So many independent schools are making a larger range of bursaries and scholarships available for parents. This isn’t always easy to achieve, of course, as the majority of schools do not possess wealthy alumni to be tapped, or reserves that can be used for such purposes. Many are charities or not-for-profit companies that have deliberately kept fees to reasonable levels and not put money aside for a rainy day. If money has been available, this has gone on capital spending so that current pupils can benefit from better teaching or sporting facilities.

On average, independent schools spend between £900 and £1000 per pupil each year on new or improved buildings, with an additional £400-500 going on IT and other equipment. That’s quite a commitment and one that directly benefits pupils and their learning. Given that the average size of an independent school is around 400 and many are between 151 and 200 pupils (and that average pupil-to-teacher ratios are still less than 10:1), it may come as a surprise to some how so many schools have been able to increase their bursary and scholarship funds while still renewing facilities.

The answer of course lies in schools’ commitment to their aims and values. Teachers in independent schools recognise their moral purpose, that they are in post to help children make the most of their talents in order to be successful in life. The schools themselves do whatever they can to make this happen, through small class sizes, excellent facilities and the vast array of opportunities that they provide for pupils.

Independent schools would not have it any other way and this is their commitment to pupils and has been so for many hundreds of years. They will not allow the relatively short-term vagaries of the economy to disrupt their long-term commitment to the educational fabric of the country. They feel this responsibility deeply and so it should come as no surprise that they will do what they can to help young people make the most of their lives.

So parents thinking about their commitment to independent education will find it a very good time to speak to the schools directly and honestly, as the schools themselves will, perhaps even more than ever, do what they can to make it happen. And such will be the start of a long-term partnership that parents will come to see as the best investment that they ever made.

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