Flourishing state schools are not a threat to private schools

Steve Harley 2

Media headlines declared the other day that private schools were ‘in crisis’ and that they were ‘under threat’ because of rising standards in the state sector. So, what’s the reality? Samantha Price, Headmistress of Benenden School, puts it into perspective

The basis of the reports were comments by the Good Schools Guide publisher, Lord Lucas, who said twin factors faced private schools: rapidly improving state schools and rising independent school fees.

I find myself somewhat reassured by the headlines. From whatever perspective I look at it – as a parent, a taxpayer or an education leader – I am delighted to see that the state sector is, on the whole, flourishing.

We are proud to be a sponsor of the John Wallis Church of England Academy in Ashford and indeed under the leadership of John McParland, the school – formed in 2010 after the closure of two failing schools – is now rated Good by Ofsted and is consistently going from strength to strength. The energy and the vision of the senior managers and teachers is inspirational and this is reflected in the curriculum it is delivering and the wide opportunities offered beyond the classroom. The recent introduction of the Benenden and John Wallis Combined Cadet Force is a fine example of this.

Schools such as John Wallis are a credit to the state sector, and to the academies programme, and on this evidence it is really no wonder that the state sector is buoyant.

This improvement among state schools is being achieved through a refreshing amount of freedom being given to successful schools and innovative practices are being applauded and actively encouraged. The increasing sharing of good practice between state and independent partnerships is mutually beneficial and I see this as a ringing endorsement of the strength of the private and state sectors.

We should not be concerned that the improving state sector will threaten independent schools. It means there is a greater pool of quality schools for parents to choose from, which can only be a good thing. It is important to look at the bigger picture, and in this case the bigger picture is that all schools – state and private – should strive for excellence so that the overall strength of the country’s education is enhanced.

The greatest aspect of this is that it increases the amount of choice available to parents. There will always be a need for a diverse range of schools to suit all preferences – just as, for example, some parents will want a faith school, others will prefer co-educational schools, while others will favour a boarding environment.

All schools can learn from one another, and we all offer something different. When prospective parents come to visit Benenden, we are very honest with them and explain that boarding is not for everyone, and I encourage all parents to pick a school based on the atmosphere, on the feeling they get, on whether it seems a right fit for their child.

Parents know that a private education comes at a financial cost and here at Benenden, as with all private schools I know, we work extremely hard to keep any increase in fees as low as possible, while ensuring we offer a tremendously busy 24/7 boarding environment with a vast array of extra-curricular activities. Again, this comes down to parental choice.

Ultimately it is the children themselves who are the winners when the UK has a booming education sector – and they, after all, are the reason we are all in education in the first place.

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