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Independent school (United Kingdom)

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Independent school (United Kingdom)

Warwick School, one of Britain's oldest independent schools.

In the United Kingdom Independent schools (also private schools) are fee-paying private schools, governed by an elected board of governors and independent of many of the regulations and conditions that apply to state funded schools. Some of the older, expensive and more exclusive schools catering for the 13–18 age-range in England and Wales are known as Public schools, the term "public" being derived from the fact that they were open to pupils regardless of where they lived or their religion. Prep schools, (or preparatory school) educate younger children up to the age of 13 to "prepare" them for entry to the public schools and other independent schools. Some former grammar schools converted to an independent fee paying model following the 1965 Circular 10/65 which marked the end of their state funding, others converted into comprehensive schools.

There are around 2,500 independent schools in the UK, which educate around 615,000 children, being some 7 per cent of all British children and 18 per cent of pupils over the age of 16.[1] In addition to charging tuition fees, many also benefit from gifts, charitable endowments and charitable status. Many of these schools are members of the Independent Schools Council.



Some independent schools are particularly old, such as The King's School, Canterbury (founded 597), St Peter's School, York (founded c. 627), Sherborne School (founded c. 710, refounded 1550 by Edward VI), Warwick School (c. 914), The King's School, Ely (c. 970) and St Albans School (948). These schools were founded as part of the church and were under their complete dominion. However, it was during the late 14th & early 15th centuries that the first schools, independent of the church, were founded. Winchester & Oswestry were the first of their kind and paved the way for the establishment of the modern "Public school". These were often established for male scholars from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds; however, English law has always regarded education as a charitable end in itself, irrespective of poverty. For instance, the Queen's Scholarships founded at Westminster in 1560, are for "the sons of decay'd gentlemen".

The transformation of free charitable foundations into institutions which sometimes charge fees came about readily: the foundation would only afford minimal facilities, so that further fees might be charged to lodge, clothe and otherwise maintain the scholars, to the private profit of the trustees or headmaster. Also, facilities already provided by the charitable foundation for a few scholars could profitably be extended to further paying pupils. (Some schools still keep their foundation scholars in a separate house from other pupils.)

After a time, such fees would eclipse the original charitable income, and the original endowment would naturally become a minor part of the capital benefactions enjoyed by the school. In 2009 senior boarding schools were charging fees of between £16,000 and nearly £30,000 per annum.[2]

Victorian expansion

The educational reforms of the 19th century were particularly important under first Thomas Arnold at Rugby, and then Butler and later Kennedy at Shrewsbury, the former emphasising team spirit and muscular Christianity and the latter the importance of scholarship and competitive examinations. Edward Thring of Uppingham School introduced major reforms, focusing on the importance of the individual and competition, as well as the need for a "total curriculum" with academia, music, sport and drama being central to education. Most public schools developed significantly during the 18th and 19th centuries, and came to play an important role in the development of the Victorian social elite. Under a number of forward-looking headmasters leading public schools created a curriculum based heavily on classics and physical activity for boys and young men of the upper and upper middle classes.

They were schools for the gentlemanly elite of Victorian politics, armed forces and colonial government. Often successful businessmen would send their sons to a public school as a mark of participation in the elite. Much of the discipline was in the hands of senior pupils (usually known as prefects), which was not just a means to reduce staffing costs, but was also seen as vital preparation for those pupils' later roles in public or military service. More recently heads of public schools have been emphasising that senior pupils now play a much reduced role in disciplining.

To an extent, the public school system influenced the school systems of the British Empire, and recognisably "public" schools can be found in many Commonwealth countries.

Modern era

Until 1975 there had been a group of 179 academically selective schools drawing on both private and state funding, the direct grant grammar schools. The Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations 1975 required these schools to choose between full state funding as comprehensive schools and full independence. As a result, 119 of these schools became independent.[3]

Pupil numbers at independent schools fell slightly during the mid-1970s recession. At the same time participation at all secondary schools grew dramatically, so that the share of the independent sector fell from a little under 8 per cent in 1964 to reach a low of 5.7 per cent in 1978. Both these trends were reversed during the 1980s, and the share of the independent schools reached 7.5 per cent by 1991. The changes since 1990 have been less dramatic, participation falling to 6.9 per cent by 1996 before increasing very slightly after 2000 to reach 7.2 per cent, as seen at present.[4]

The present day

England and Wales

In 2011 there were more than 2,600 independent schools in the UK educating some 628,000 children, comprising over 6.5 per cent of UK children, and more than 18 per cent of pupils over the age of 16.[5][6] In England the schools account for a slightly higher percentage than in the UK as a whole. According to a study by Ryan & Sibetia,[7] "the proportion of pupils attending independent schools in England is currently 7.2 per cent (considering full-time pupils only)".

Most of the larger independent schools are either full or partial boarding schools, although many are now predominantly day schools; by contrast there are only a few dozen state boarding schools. Boarding-school traditions give a distinctive character to British independent education, even in the case of day-pupils.

Most independent schools, particularly the larger and older institutions, have charitable status. The Independent Schools Council say that UK independent schools receive approximately £100m tax relief due to charitable status whilst returning £300m of fee assistance in public benefit and relieving the maintained sector (state schools) of £2bn of costs.[8] The Charity Commission is currently formulating tests of public benefit for charitable schools as required by the Charities Act 2006.

Inspections in England

The [9]


Fettes College is one of Scotland's most famous independent schools, particularly since the 1997 Labour Government led by former pupil, Tony Blair.

Independent schools in St Aloysius' College, The Glasgow Academy, Dollar Academy, the High School of Glasgow and the High School of Dundee.

Historically, in Scotland, it was common for children destined for private schools to receive their primary education at a local school. This arose because of Scotland's long tradition of state-funded education, which was spearheaded by the Church of Scotland from the seventeenth century, long before such education was common in England. Independent prep schools only became more widespread in Scotland from the late 19th century (usually attached to an existing secondary private school, though exceptions such as Craigclowan Preparatory School and Cargilfield Preparatory School do exist), though they are still much less prevalent than in England. They are, however, currently gaining in numbers.


Independent schools, like state grammar schools, are free to select their pupils, subject to general legislation against discrimination. The principal forms of selection are financial, in that the pupil's family must be able to pay the school fees, and academic, with many administering their own entrance exams - some also require that the prospective student undergo an interview, and credit may also be given for musical, sporting or other talent. Entrance to some schools is more or less restricted to pupils whose parents practice a particular religion, or schools may require all pupils to attend religious services. Nowadays most schools pay little regard to family connections, apart from siblings currently at the school.

Only a small minority of parents can afford school fees averaging over £23,000 per annum for boarding pupils and £11,000 for day pupils, with additional costs for uniform, equipment and extra-curricular facilities.[2][12] Scholarships and means-tested bursaries to assist the education of the less well-off are usually awarded by a process which combines academic and other criteria.[13][14]

Independent schools are generally academically selective, using the competitive Common Entrance Examination at ages 11–13. Schools often offer scholarships to attract abler pupils (which improves their average results); the standard sometimes approaches the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) intended for age 16. Poorly-performing pupils may be required to leave, and following GCSE results can be replaced in the sixth form by a new infusion of high-performing sixth-form-only pupils, which may distort apparent results.[15]


Independent schools, as compared with maintained schools, are generally characterised by more individual teaching; much better pupil-teacher ratios at around 9:1;[16] longer teaching hours (sometimes including Saturday morning teaching) and homework, though shorter terms; more time for organised sports and extra-curricular activities; more emphasis on traditional academic subjects such as maths, classics and modern languages; and a broader education than that prescribed by the national curriculum, to which state school education is in practice limited. As boarding schools are fully responsible for their pupils throughout term-time, pastoral care is an essential part of independent education, and many independent schools teach their own distinctive ethos, including social aspirations, manners and accents, associated with their own school traditions. Many pupils aspire to send their own children to their old schools in their historical buildings, over successive generations. Most offer sporting, musical, dramatic and art facilities, sometimes at extra charges, although often with the benefit of generations of past investment.

Educational achievement is generally very good. Independent school pupils are four times more likely to attain an A* at GCSE than their non-selective state sector counterparts and twice as likely to attain an A grade at A-level. A much higher proportion go to university. Some schools specialise in particular strengths, whether academic, vocational or artistic, although this is not as common as it is in the State sector.

Independent schools are able to set their own discipline regime, with much greater freedom to exclude children, primarily exercised in the wider interests of the school: the most usual causes being drug-taking, whether at school or away, or an open rejection of the school's values, such as dishonesty or violence.

In England and Wales there are no requirements for teaching staff to have Qualified Teacher Status or to be registered with the General Teaching Council. In Scotland a teaching qualification and registration with the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) is mandatory for all teaching positions.

The impact of independent schools on the British economy.

In 2014 a report from Oxford Economics highlighted the impact that independent schools have on the British economy. The report calculated that independent schools support an £11.7 billion contribution to gross value added (GVA) in Britain. This represents the share of GDP that is supported by independent schools. It is about 0.9% of the total output produced by the British economy and is similar to the total economic activity of the city of Bristol. Independent schools support 275,700 jobs across Britain, around 1.0% of all in employment in Britain. Every 2.3 pupils at an independent school supports one person in employment in Britain. Independent schools generate £4.7 billion in tax revenues for the Exchequer, equivalent to £169 for every household in Britain. In addition, the report quantified the savings to the taxpayer derived from c.620,000 British pupils at independent schools choosing not to take up the place at a state school to which they are entitled. This results in an annual saving to the taxpayer of £3.9 billion, the equivalent of building more than 590 new free schools each year. Furthermore, the report highlighted the additional value to Britain’s GDP that results from the higher educational performance achieved by pupils at independent schools. Drawing on research showing the link between educational performance and economic output at a national level, they demonstrate that the achievement of pupils at independent schools in Britain results in an estimated additional annual contribution to GDP of £1.3 billion.


Independent schools are often criticised for being elitist and such schools are often seen as outside the spirit of the state system. However, the treatment of the state sector as homogeneous in nature is difficult to support. The spectrum of state schools, their intake and performance is enormous, going from "super selective", selective, right down to what Newsam referred to as "sub secondary modern".[17] Although grammar schools are rare, some of them are highly selective and state funded boarding schools require substantial fees,[18] which may introduce further barriers to entry. Even traditional comprehensive schools may be effectively selective because only wealthier families can afford to live in their catchment area and it may be argued that the gap in performance between state schools is much larger than that between the better state and grammar schools and the independent sector. Smithers and Robinson's 2010 Sutton Trust commissioned study of social variation in comprehensive schools (excluding grammar schools) notes that "The 2,679 state comprehensive schools in England are highly socially segregated: the least deprived comprehensive in the country has 1 in 25 (4.2 per cent) of pupils with parents on income benefits compared with over 16 times as many (68.6 per cent) in the most deprived comprehensive"[19]

Nevertheless, many of the best-known public schools are extremely expensive, and many have entry criteria geared towards those who have been at private "feeder" preparatory-schools or privately tutored. Going some way to countering the charge of exclusivity, a large number (c. one third) of independent schools provide assistance with fees. The Thatcher government introduced the Assisted Places Scheme in England and Wales in 1980, whereby the state paid the school fees for those pupils capable of gaining a place but unable to afford the fees. This was essentially a response to the decision of the previous Labour government in the mid-1970s to remove government funding of direct grant grammar schools, most of which then became private schools; some Assisted Places pupils went to the former direct-grant schools such as Manchester Grammar School. The scheme was terminated by the Labour government in 1997, and since then the private sector has moved to increase its own means-tested bursaries.

The former classics-based curriculum was also criticised for not providing skills in sciences or engineering, but was perhaps in response to the requirement of classics for entry to Oxbridge up until the early 1960s, as well as a hangover from the pre-20th century period when only Latin and Greek were taught at many public schools. It was Martin Wiener's opposition to this tendency which inspired his 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980. It became a huge influence on the Thatcher government's opposition to old-school gentlemanly Toryism. Nowadays, independent school pupils have "the highest rates of achieving grades A or B in A-level maths and sciences" compared to grammar, specialist and mainstream state schools, and pupils at independent schools account for a disproportionate number of the total number of A-levels in maths and sciences.[20]

Some parents complain that their rights and their children’s are compromised by vague and one-sided contracts which allow Heads to use discretionary powers unfairly, such as in expulsion on non-disciplinary matters. They believe independent schools have not embraced the principles of natural justice as adopted by the state sector, and private law as applied to Higher Education.[21]

Generally political attacks on private schools have been opposed by concern that there should be no totalitarian state control of education.

In 2006, pupils at fee-paying schools made up 43 per cent of those selected for places at Oxford University and 38 per cent of those granted places at Cambridge University (although such pupils represent only 18 per cent of the 16 years old plus school population).[5][22] However, the progression of pupils to Russell Group universities, including Oxbridge, is complex. For example, many independent schools (and most of the prestigious schools) take pupils at thirteen, so they would be expected to attract the strongest applicants from many feeder schools, provided the pupils are wealthy enough to afford the fees or are able to receive funding.

A major area of debate in recent years has centred around the continuing charitable status of independent schools, which allows them not to charge VAT on school fees. Following the enactment of the Charities Bill, which was passed by the Charity Commission.[23] Pending the Charity Commission publishing its definitive guidance on "public benefit" at the end of 2008, there remains an incentive for independent schools to share their sporting, musical and other facilities with the public or local state schools, and supplement their charitable endowments with an increased number of subsidised scholarships and bursaries.

In Scotland, due to the Charities and Trustee Investment Act (Scotland),[24] an entirely separate test of charitable status exists, overseen by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, which assesses the public benefit[25] provided by each registered school charity.[26]

School type and eventual degree class

In 2002 Jeremy Smith and Robin Naylor of the University of Warwick conducted a study into the determinants of degree performance at UK universities. Their study confirmed that the internationally recognized phenomenon whereby “children from more advantaged class backgrounds have higher levels of educational attainment than children from less-advantaged class backgrounds"[27] persists at university level in the United Kingdom. The authors noted "a very well-determined and monotonically positive effect defined over Social Classes I to V" whereby, for both men and women, "ceteris paribus, academic performance at university is better the more advantaged is the student's home background". but they also observed that a student educated at an independent school was on average 6 per cent less likely to receive a first or an upper second class degree than a student from the same social class background, of the same gender, who had achieved the same A-level score at a state school. The averaged effect was described as very variable across the social class and A-level attainment of the candidates; it was "small and not strongly significant for students with high A-level scores" (i.e. for students at the more selective universities) and "statistically significant mostly for students from lower occupationally-ranked social-class backgrounds". Additionally, the study could not take into account the effect of a slightly different and more traditional subject mix studied by independent students at university on university achievement. Despite these caveats, the paper attracted much press attention. The same study found wide variations between independent school, suggesting that students from a few of them were in fact significantly more likely to obtain the better degrees than state students of the same gender and class background having the same A-level score.[28]

A subsequent study led by Richard Partington at Cambridge University[29] showed that A-level performance is "overwhelmingly" the best predictor for exam performance in the earlier years ("Part I") of the undergraduate degree at Cambridge. Partington's summary specified that "questions of school background and gender" ... "make only a marginal difference and the pattern – particularly in relation to school background – is in any case inconsistent."

A study commissioned by the Sutton Trust[30] and published in 2010 focussed mainly on the possible use of US-style SAT tests as a way of detecting a candidate's academic potential. Its findings confirmed those of the Smith & Naylor study in that it found that privately educated pupils who, despite their educational advantages, have only secured a poor A-level score, and who therefore attend less selective universities, do less well than state educated degree candidates with the same low A-level attainment. In addition, as discussed in the 2010 Buckingham report "HMC Schools: a quantitative analysis", because students from state schools tended to be admitted on lower A-level entry grades, relative to entry grades it could be claimed that these students had improved more.[19] A countervailing finding of the Sutton Trust study was that for students of a given level of A-level attainment it is almost twice as difficult to get a first at the most selective universities than at those on the other end of the scale. Independent sector schools regularly dominate the top of the A-level league tables, and their students are more likely to apply to the most selective universities; as a result independent sector students are particularly well represented at these institutions, and therefore only the very ablest of them are likely to secure the best degrees.

In 2013 the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a study [31] noting, amongst other things, that a greater percentage of students who had attended an independent school prior to university achieved a first or upper second class degree compared with students from state schools. Out of a starting cohort of 24,360 candidates having attended an independent school and 184,580 having attended a state school, 64.9 per cent of the former attained a first or upper second class degree, compared to 52.7 per cent of the latter.

See also


  1. ^ Hensher, Philip (20 January 2012). "Philip Hensher: Rejecting Oxbridge isn't clever – it's a mistake". The Independent (London). 
  2. ^ a b "ISC Annual Census 2009".  
  3. ^ .  
  4. ^ Bolton, Paul (2012). "Education: Historical statistics". House of Commons Library. 
  5. ^ a b Pupil Numbers, Independent Schools Council.
  6. ^ Murray-West, Rosie (9 October 2006). "Soaring school fees put private education out of reach for many". The Telegraph (London). Retrieved 19 May 2010. 
  7. ^ Chris Ryan & Luke Sibetia, Private schooling in the UK and Australia, Institute of Fiscal Studies, 2010
  8. ^ Response to Charity Commission draft guidance on public benefit, Independent Schools Council.
  9. ^ The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), Independent Schools Council.
  10. ^ "Facts and Statistics: Pupil numbers".  
  11. ^ Independence, Scottish Council of Independent Schools.
  12. ^ "Boarding school fees rise by nearly three times inflation in the last ten years". Halifax Financial Services. 2008-03-31. 
  13. ^ "Scholarships for Private Independent Schools". Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  14. ^ Nick Collins (26 July 2010). "Richest independent schools give smallest bursaries". London: The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  15. ^ Hackett, Geraldine; Baird, Tom (14 August 2005). "'"Schools 'cull pupils to lift A-level rank. The Times (London). 
  16. ^ Teaching Staff & Teacher/Pupil Ratio, Independent Schools Council.
  17. ^ Peter Newsam. "Diversity and Admissions to English Secondary Schools", Secondary Heads Association, 28 June 2002, revised and reprinted in Forum 45:1 (2003) pp17-18
  18. ^ "State boarding schools". You pay only the cost of boarding as the education at SBSA schools is free. This means that rather than paying £25,000+ a year for an independent boarding school, you would probably be paying less than £10,000 a year at a state boarding school 
  19. ^ a b CEER Publications|University of Buckingham. (1997-01-02). Retrieved on 2013-08-13.
  20. ^
  21. ^ ? Disappointment damages for breach of the contract to educateRycotewoodand now Phelps...Clark... by David Palfreyman, at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCHEPS), 2003
  22. ^ Hackett, Geraldine (2006-12-17). "Poorer pupils still fail to get into Oxbridge". The Sunday Times (London). 
  23. ^ Public Benefit, Charity Commission.
  24. ^ "Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005". 2011-05-26. Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  25. ^ "Public Benefit". SCIS. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  26. ^ "Reviews of charitable status". Retrieved 2013-11-13. 
  27. ^ Robert Erikson, John H. Goldthorpe, Michelle Jackson, Meir Yaish and D. R. Cox On class differentials in educational attainment , Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2005 July 5; 102(27): 9730–9733.
  28. ^ Smith, Jeremy; Naylor, Robin (2005). "Schooling effects on subsequent university performance: evidence for the UK university population". Economics of Education Review 24 (5): 549–562.  
  29. ^ Richard Partington et al. The predictive effectiveness of metrics in admission to Cambridge University Admissions & Data Services at Cambridge Admissions Office, February 2011
  30. ^ Catherine Kirkup, Rebecca Wheater,Jo Morrison, Ben Durbin, Marco Pomati Use of an aptitude test in university entrance:a validity study, National Foundation for Educational Research, September 2010
  31. ^ Quantitative Analysis for Policy Team Higher education and beyond: Outcomes from full-time first degree study HEFCE 2013

External links

  • 'To fail them all their days' By Ben Locker and William Dornan in The Times. April 3, 2007
  • "University Admissions by Individual Schools". Sutton Trust. February 2008. 
  • Milburn, Alan (chair) (2009). "Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions". Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  • Passmore, Biddy (31 December 1999). "Bastions for the elite?". Times Education Supplement. 
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