Measures to widen access to the independent education sector are supported by significant proportions of the British public

Education is a key battleground in the 2019 General Election campaign with the two main political parties polarised in their education policies. The Labour Party manifesto outlines education proposals to “close tax loopholes enjoyed by independent schools” and to seek advice on “integrating independent schools into the state sector”.  Meanwhile the Conservatives are drawing up a pledge to create more grammar school places and the reintroduction of a version of the Assisted Places scheme, abolished in 1997 under Tony Blair, is also being mooted.

Ahead of the political party conference season in September, Research Stories conducted some research among over 2,000 adults in England, Scotland and Wales to explore attitudes towards some of the education policy areas being proposed as well as perceptions of ways that independent schools can widen access to the sector.Measures to widen access to the independent education sector are supported by significant proportions of the British public

We found that while there is broad support for making changes to independent schools’ tax status, policies to widen access to the sector resonate particularly well with the general public.  Around half of British adults (49%) think that independent schools should be forced to offer many more scholarships or subsidised places vs only 13% who disagree with this premise.

This measure is positively viewed across the board, especially among Labour supporters (62%), Liberal Democrat voters and parents with children aged 18 and under (54% each). A significant proportion of Conservative voters also support this premise (44%) although they are also key opponents with 21% disagreeing that independent schools should be made to do this.

For a significant proportion of the public, the sector needs to go much further to broaden access to the sector.  When asked if they agreed that the sector should be forced to offer (hypothetically) at least half their places to children from low income families, around a third (32%) of Brits agreed.  But this is a contentious issue and almost as many people disagree with this proposal (29%).

Opinion on this proposal to set tougher targets is strongly polarised with Labour voters being twice as likely to agree with it than Conservatives (46% vs 23%) and Conservatives being four times more likely than Labour voters to disagree (45% vs 11%).

The principle that the independent education sector should do more to increase access was also highlighted in a study we conducted over a year ago in September 2018 among British adults aged 18+.  Here we found that over half (54%) of GB adults agreed that independent schools should make more places available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds while only ten per cent disagreed.

Again, this measure is particularly popular with Labour voters (64%) as well as among young people aged 18-24 (64%) and Londoners (61%).  There are also high levels of support among Liberal Democrat (57%) and Conservative (49%) voters.

Research by the ISC in early September shows that the British public would like to see the government take a lead on widening access to the independent education sector. Around half (49%) would support a government policy to help pay for children from low income backgrounds to attend an independent school with 46% of Labour voters in favour of this measure.

The independent education sector appears to be attuned to public opinion on this front.  In September, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) announced an offer to teach 10,000 disadvantaged children at a cost of £5,500 each – equivalent to the cost of state education – to be funded by the government. Advocates for this measure also believe that it will deliver another important long-term benefit of widening access in future years to the top professions and careers.

There are a number of examples of good practice initiatives to increase access within the independent education. These include Assisted Places schemes, ‘needs blind ‘admission programmes, the establishment of overseas schools and campuses to provide funding for bursaries at schools in the UK, education vouchers and schemes whereby independent schools collaborate with charities and local authorities to place disadvantaged children in some of the UK’s most prestigious boarding schools.

Christ’s Hospital and Latymer Upper schools provide means tested assisted places to pupils from low-income families and Latymer Upper School aims to offer means-tested bursaries to one in four pupils by 2024 (this is an increase on the one in five pupils nationally who get some or all of their fees paid). Both schools were finalists at the 2019 UK Social Mobility Awards for encouraging social mobility through their bursary and outreach programmes. According to Sam Burns, who attended Christ’s Hospital school on an assisted place, “A whole new world of opportunities arose: alongside academic excellence were the soft skills, pastoral care – and, importantly for me, sport.”

‘Needs blind’ admission at independent schools in Great Britain is seen by some as a key way to improve social mobility by ensuring that fees are covered for the brightest pupils from low income families and that the benefits of an independent education can be spread more widely.

An experiment with the ‘needs blind’ approach was adopted in the Open Access project by Belvedere School in Liverpool in partnership with the Sutton Trust in the early 2000s. After seven years, one third of pupils had their fees wholly or partly paid for by the Sutton Trust and the Girls Day School Trust (GDST). The academic results of the school were the best in the city, even though the school now reflected the demographics of the local area.

A new Impact Report by the Royal National Children’s Springboard Foundation is an evidenced based scheme demonstrating that increasing access to independent boarding schools can be transformative. The research followed the progress of over 700 children from troubled backgrounds who have been placed in boarding schools over the past five years.

The report found that pupils on this scheme are three times more likely to go to university and six time more likely to achieve at least two A’Levels compared to disadvantaged students nationally.

The scheme focuses on a ‘whole child agenda’ matching children to a boarding school that is right for them rather than ‘cherry picking’ the brightest students. The places are largely funded by the schools through bursaries and in some cases the local authority also contributes to the cost.

The charity works with a network of community and mentoring organisations and seven local authorities to offer each child pastoral support throughout their time at school and at home.

Ian Davenport, chief executive of Royal SpringBoard believes that a boarding school education can provide life changing opportunities:

“A boarding school offers more than high quality teaching and learning. It can also provide a supportive and stable pastoral environment, where expectations are high and aspiration is encouraged.

This impact data demonstrates that academically, pastorally and socially, our pupils grow and flourish in their schools and beyond.”

A number of initiatives within the independent education sector have demonstrated that increasing access to the sector is possible but all of the schemes explored here are bespoke. It is clear that significant proportions of the British public would welcome the introduction of a national scheme whereby government would fund places for children from low income backgrounds to attend independent schools.