The Perse School

I’m an Independent School Head and I’m proud of it

This week the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Moral Maze’ debated the morality of private education.     Nick Clegg has suggested that independent schools are “corrosive”, whilst the Head of Rodean is allegedly emigrating to Switzerland because of the hostility private schools heads face.  Of course there is much journalistic hyperbole in the reporting of these stories – nothing sells better in Britain than a stereotyped tale of social inequality.  The Clegg story has it all, ex-public school pupil criticises public schools for promoting a great rift in society and then announces he is considering sending his son to one.

So do I hang my head in shame as the head of an independent school?  No, of course not.

Perse staff work hard to run a successful school that does the very best it can for its pupils.  Helping children achieve, and realising talents for the benefit of future generations are hardly immoral activities.  The Perse, like many schools of its type, educates large numbers of tomorrow’s doctors, scientists, engineers and teachers.  The independent sector as a whole produces a disproportionally large number of undergraduates in subjects the government regards as strategically important to the UK’s economic future.  More than a third of engineering students come from independent schools and there is a similar figure in modern languages.

Most parents pay to send their children to The Perse.   Every parent who does so is saving the state around £5000 per child per year by not taking up their entitlement to a free state school place.  In total parents choosing to educate their children privately save the government about £3billion per annum, a considerable sum in austerity Britain.

Independent schools are not the exclusive preserve of the rich and privileged.  Many are educational charities that offer free and subsidised places so children of all backgrounds can benefit from the education on offer.  The Perse provides means tested bursaries for 120 children.

Independent schools don’t just provide fee support. They work hard to deliver other benefits to the local community.  At The Perse, staff and students visit state primary schools to help pupils with Maths and French.  Primary pupils come to The Perse to take part in Science, Technology, Sport and Outdoor Pursuits programmes.  Learning is life long, and The Perse also runs a Digistart programme to teach local elderly residents computer skills.

Those who criticise independent schools often do so on the grounds that they increase social inequalities, claiming rich parents buy their offspring an excellent education to give them a head-start in life. This propagates existing social divisions in future generations.  But the purpose of education should be to maximise talents, not engineer social equality.  The future of the UK will be bleak if we move education down to the lowest common denominator in the interests of parity.  Much better to identify the best state and independent schools, and raise the standards of the rest to the highest common denominator.  For the critics of independent schools this is the surest way to destroy the private sector – nobody will pay for a private education when there is an excellent and free state equivalent.

The existence of schools entirely independent of the state can be very helpful to the maintained sector.  In part, academy success is built on independent school DNA, with the recognition that freeing academies from local government control allows such schools to be more responsive to the needs of pupils.  Academies are now benefiting from the freedom to set their own programmes of study, choose exam qualifications and determine staff salaries.

The longevity of many independent schools also brings an important perspective to educational debates.  Politicians operate on five year horizons, and their preoccupation is with short term gains that voters will appreciate in General Elections.  Measurements of the quality of education are thus reduced to simple public exam statistics summarised in performance tables.  Independent schools with centuries of history inevitably take a longer term view.  The Perse has survived the English Civil War, Bubonic Plague, The South Sea Bubble, a direct hit from the Luftwaffe, and numerous changes of Education Secretary.  We can look beyond the latest fad and government performance measures, and focus on what 400 years of educational experience has shown.  This includes the paramount need to prepare students for the challenges of adult life, and not simply tick government boxes and maximise the five A*-C GCSE rate.  Education is about far more than success in the next public exam.

Independent schools, sitting outside the constraints of government control and funding, have the freedom to speak out and challenge politicians when there are legitimate concerns about educational policy.  When the weight of the independent sector is brought alongside other professional associations it can change ministerial minds.  The demise of EBacc is a case in point.

Independent schools are a force for the good.  Their existence gives parents choices – choices that are open to those who can pay (fee paying places) and those who can’t pay (means tested bursaries).  Parents should have the freedom to decide which school is best for their child and the mix of academies, state schools, free schools, and independents provides that choice.

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  1. 21 Mar 2013

    Ed Elliott, Head

    It’s wonderful to hear what a positive impact your Perse education had on your life Meg. Our bursary programme has increased significantly over the last few years and this academic year it is over £1million, demonstrating our commitment to making a Perse education a possibility for as many academically talented children as we can. I am also very aware that making the choice to send their children to The Perse entails significant sacrifices for some of our parents. Nevertheless I take your point that independent schools are simply not an option for some, which underlines the importance of the independent and state sectors working together to share expertise and raise standards across the board.
  2. 20 Mar 2013


    Without my Perse education it is almost certain that I would not be at this place in life that I find myself in. However, I do feel that it has been a relatively easy ride to come so far, and this is due to the fact that my parents paid for my education. Ask any loving parent what they want their child's education to be like, and they will all reply with answers that are extremely similar. It'll be something along the lines of "I want what is best for my child" or "a well rounded education that leads them to success". This is a choice that all parents make, and as was stated in the post, parents should have the freedom to be able to make this choice for their children. But the reality of it is, is that not all parents can make this choice happen, because they simply cannot afford it. It is not true to say that private schools provide parents with choices; it supplies a choice to those who can afford them, or are lucky enough to be part of the small minority who are successful in applying for means tested bursaries. Even these means tested bursaries don't completely eliminate the financial restrictions facing these families. My education at the Perse was truly remarkable, although the "choice" of giving your child a Persian standard education, which most parents dream of, is only really a choice for those who can afford it. It is undoubtedly true that my privileged position in life has been caused by my Perse education and the enthusiasm and drive it installed in me. But this my friend, is because I am just a little rich kid.
  3. 1 Mar 2013

    Smart Teachers' Blog

    Reblogged this on Smart Teachers' Blog and commented: An interesting read from the Head Teacher of The Perse School...
  4. 25 Feb 2013


    As a Perse parent (and, FWIW, privately educated myself), I'm not about to say like the previous commenter that private education is morally wrong ("To offer a child a nicer house in a better part of town and a bigger bedroom just because their parents are loaded is morally wrong", too, perhaps? There is no end to that route). However, I did find this post disappointing. Unlike most of your posts it isn't particularly interesting, presents no new views, and just trots out the same old stuff - not dissimilar to what the pols all do. I personally think you're largely right, but that doesn't make it any more interesting - just defensive. For example, you raise Those who criticise independent schools often do so on the grounds that they increase social inequalities but I don't think you really manage to answer this point. Your answer appears to be "yeah, that's tough, but maybe we could manage things better in future".
  5. 22 Feb 2013


    Although bursaries and scholarships exist, typically only wealthy parents can afford opportunities that indepedent schools offer. You say that indepedant schools provide choices, this is a choice very often only the wealthy can afford. The 120 places offer a chance, but at less than 10% it is hardly a choice, rather a glimmer of hope. Those with money are privy to better opportunities and in the case of education, often a better future. You say yourself that a third of engineers come from indepedent schools. Indepedent schools can be justified as just another service, where paying more affords the user a better quality of service, but in the case of education its clear it can shape a childs future. The idea of giving a better education and ultimately a better future to a child because their parents are wealthy is what is morally wrong, not the premise of indepedence from the education system. To cater to a system that benefits those with wealth is what is morally wrong, not the hard work of teachers and staff in your school. To offer a child more opportunities because their parents earn more than their neighbours is what is morally wrong. To deny a child their full potential because their parents don't earn enough money; that is morally wrong. Regardless of how well its dressed up, exclusively giving better education to children of wealthy parents (and inversely denying the same education to those who are less well off) is morally wrong.
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