Wednesday 6 May 2015

Independent schools: no longer for the likes of us

I went to a school reunion last weekend.  I'm not sure why these events are so nerve-wracking - perhaps we are afraid of encountering our own age and failures in the faces of our fellows.  In the event, of course, everyone was exactly the same.

Some of us meet up anyway every few months.  We are middle-aged, middle class survivors, in a sense. Some of our fellow public schoolboys from the 1970s have died. One or two have even committed suicide, but we are still around, largely happy, not always thriving, but settled. What is most unexpected about the small group of us who meet more often is how diverse we are.

There are two builders, a furniture restorer, a very successful barrister, a medical consultant, an Alexander Technique teacher, and a writer (me). There is also a fireman, an undertaker, a sales director, and an engineer, among others.  I'm sad to say the garage owner just died.

We spent our whole schooldays being told how privileged we were, and we were certainly privileged in many ways – most of us own our own homes. But if you believe the rhetoric about independent schools, on either side of the political divide, you might have expected us to have been more of a cohesive group.

We're not the narrow slice of the class system you might have predicted. We seem actually to straddle a huge variety of different kinds of middle classes, but we all worry about our children, and their ability to survive in the world that is emerging, here and abroad.

More about this in my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis. But back to last weekend.

The highlight of the dinner was the headmaster's speech, inevitably asking us for money for scholarships and explaining - rather oddly actually - that the huge rise in fees since the days when we went there were unavoidable.

The explanation he gave for this was the rising cost of regulation.  They now include in the staff two full-time compliance officers.

I'm sure this is onerous, but the fees for boarders hover around £30,000 a year.  At that rate, you only need two or three extra pupils to pay the costs of the compliance officers. No explanation why they need 17 all-weather pitches.

I have nothing but goodwill towards my old school, to which I owe a great deal.  I have nothing in principle against independent education either.  It would be hypocritical of me, and anyway I believe in as much diversity in education as possible.

But it is time to accept that the independent sector is not really for the middle classes any more.  That was certainly the conclusion I came to making Clinging On for the BBC, when I visited the Independent Schools Fair in Battersea Park and asked anyone I met to describe the parents who could afford it - mainly foreign, they said.  In oil or finance.

Already a third of independent school pupils are getting help with fees.  It doesn't look good.  The truth is that the sector has let down the middle classes which used to rely on it as an alternative, rather as they relied on the BBC to keep up broadcasting standards.

I don't take much comfort that a major element of educational diversity has been handed over to   the ubermensch.  As you can tell, I didn't find the speech by the headmaster terribly convincing.  It was like being asked for a contribution to the coffers by HSBC's mergers division on the grounds that I had once enjoyed an account at one of their local branches.

It is part of my thesis in the book that the institutions which once nurtured the middle classes, and helped them thrive, have now gone - local banks, monopoly watchdogs with teeth, truly independent financial advisers, small-scale public services, affordable homes.  They will have to be rebuilt, laboriously, all over again.

A pity we never heard that debated in the election campaign.

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