Diversity of School Provision - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)


7 MAY 2008

  Q300  Mr Carswell: My second question builds on a point that David was trying to make. As an economist, I would expect that, as in many markets, such as aviation, when there is a big demand, supply will come along. In the aviation sector there are no-frills providers such as Ryanair and Easyjet. Why are we not seeing in the education system a growing number of middle-range, no-frills schools? Where are the Easyjet or Ryanair-type private schools? Are there constraints on supply, or are there barriers to entry? Could we do something to increase supply? If, for example, we gave every parent in the country a legal right to control their child's share of local authority funding, would that stimulate growth in independent schools?

  Chris Parry: There is confusion between fees and resources, which do not directly relate to each other. At the end of the day, resources—both human and material—come from a variety of different sources and the fees do not directly relate. There is a demographic problem, which is that the number of pupils is declining and will decline over the next 10 years. If we look across both sectors, the idea of having what I would call independence or excellence-light—the Ryanair example—is not useful. However, the experiments that we are having with Academies and trust schools should give you the answer within about five or six years. We are on the leading edge of that at the moment, and we have got to see what both the educational and the financial provision are before we can make really clear judgments. Looking across the independent sector, there are certain fixed costs—staff costs, facilities, regulation costs—that take up about 90% of the costs of running a school. There is very little variability or flexibility with that, so having these schools on the cheap would be pretty difficult, although in the maintained sector, with all the infrastructure already in place, there might be some room for that. That is where Academies, trust schools and other such innovations can come in, but I stress that that relies on a certain amount of delegation to the professionals, as they know how to run schools, and putting in place partnerships that will allow them to run businesses as well. Schools are businesses at the end of the day.

  Q301  Chairman: I thought that most of your members were charities?

  Chris Parry: I am talking about the maintained sector. With Academies and trusts, there is a chance that if you have good partnerships in place that bring expertise to the governance, you might be able to reduce the equivalent costs in the maintained sector.

  Q302  Mr Carswell: Professor Green, I am interested in your thoughts. Why cannot we have Ryanair-type independent schools?

  Professor Green: It is a really good question. The glib answer is that Ryanair operates in the for-profit sector, whereas the independents are not-for-profit institutions. The people who run schools are not there to make profits from those schools. They do not have shareholders. I read about a small number of schools that are franchised, but I do not have expertise in that. Although that was the glib answer, none the less, to my mind, there is a bit of a puzzle about the 7 or 7.5%. It was 7.5% back in 1980, yet an enormous amount of money has gone into the sector. You can question the fact that costs go up faster in the education sector than for buying washing machines or something like that, but none the less, in real terms, an enormously increased resource goes in annually and, on top of that, there is the existing wealth of schools. It is puzzling that more schools have not started up.

  Q303  Annette Brooke: My first question should be to both Francis and Chris. Are independent schools businesses or charities?

  Chris Parry: According to the Charities Act 2006, they are all charities.[3]

  Professor Green: That is the legal answer, which is correct. Most private schools provide only relatively limited public benefit; that is my personal experience, and I know many schools in the Canterbury area. My sons are at school, and they benefit because they can use the large hall of the local public school for prize-givings. That is welcome. Whenever my sons' friends see the facilities there, they are always gobsmacked by the fantastic playing fields, halls and so on, but I am afraid that they never get to use them. Such schools are not charities in the sense that they are broadly available for members of the public to use, in my view. That is not a legalistic statement—

  Mr Carswell: It is a subjective comment.

  Professor Green: Sorry, it is a statement about the people who actually use those schools, who are mainly people from the higher income brackets. That is a statement of fact. In the area that I know about, they are largely not people from working-class estates in the Canterbury district area, and I suspect that that is true throughout the whole country.

  Q304  Annette Brooke: May I just follow that through? Let us take the new legal definition of charitable status, and obviously there are some requirements on independent schools. I think that the ISC suggested that the new regulations presented a threat to independent schools. In what way do they present a threat?

  Chris Parry: Thanks for the question. It is not so much the new Charities Act that presents a threat to us, but its interpretation. The definition of public benefit has not changed; only the interpretation placed on it by the Charity Commission has changed. I am really concerned that most trustees will be confused about their role, because it seems that the education mission, which justifies the charitable status in the first place, has become of secondary importance to the social mission implied by some of the guidelines issued by the Charity Commission. Therein lies the threat. In the gap between the legal requirement and the public perception, there might be many flaws.

  Q305  Annette Brooke: I want to follow that through. I am a great one for looking on the bright side of life.

  Chris Parry: So am I.

  Annette Brooke: Presumably, there are opportunities for you to forge stronger links between the independent and maintained sectors. Where do you see the main opportunities?

  Chris Parry: First, it is worth saying that many of these partnerships and links already exist, and have done for many years. Independent schools are characterised by their local and community commitment. There are hundreds of partnerships between maintained and independent schools. They share expertise and ideas, especially in shortage subjects. Hampton School in Middlesex, for example—it will be familiar to some members of the Committee—engages extensively with local maintained schools in subjects such as physics, chemistry and biology. It has master classes on the academic side at weekends and half terms. Hundreds of our schools run summer schools, sports clubs and coaching. We have something called Pitchlink that co-ordinates independent schools' pitches. That goes out not only to adult teams, but children's teams as well. We share playing fields and other facilities—Dame Kelly Holmes trained at Tonbridge School when she was at school.[4] We have 330 Government-sponsored independent state school partnerships, which have grown up over the past 10 years.

  Q306  Annette Brooke: Will the ISC be promoting good practice? While I know that there are some good examples around, we could probably all think of instances where there is no real partnership at all. How do you plan to spread good practice?

  Chris Parry: That is kind of you. In our sector, one thing that we lack is the ability to go the same way on the same day. I have a certain number of rogue elements in my sector, but I have 1,450 head teachers who are all independent heads of their own schools. Part of my role in the future will be to disseminate best practice, not just in that area, but in the academic arena. It is something that we have lacked up until now, and the challenge from the Charity Commission will give us an opportunity to do that, particularly in this area. It is important to stress that every head is aware of his responsibilities with regard to his local community. The vast majority of schools are fully engaged with their community and with other maintained schools in their area. We are seeing clusters of schools growing up, and one of the problems with the Academy programme is that it forces a beauty contest in certain local areas, where the independent school has to latch on to a single school—chosen for them in some cases; chosen by them in others—and that leaves the other schools to go to the wire. I am in favour of clusters where independent schools help other schools in their area more generally. That does not mean that the Academy programme is not worth sponsoring—it certainly is—but the beauty contest threatens to reduce influence in local communities.

  Q307  Chairman: Chris, let us get this on record. One thing worries me about what you have just said in response to Annette. Has the Charities Act 2006 made a difference to your members in terms of how they see the onus on them to act in a different way to come up to the expectations of Charity Commission? Part of what you said implied that we have always done this, and we are going to carry on as we were. I understand from the Charities Act and from the Charity Commission, which I met recently, that it is looking to you for a marked change in behaviour. Are you saying that most of your members do not see that change?

  Chris Parry: No, the Charities Act and its interpretation by the Charity Commission has catalysed people's views. They are looking at better ways of doing what they already do, and I think that you will find that people will be more imaginative in the ways in which they stretch their resources to help their local communities further. To a greater or lesser extent, our members have always done things with the local community; they have always helped the maintained sector. We are going to systematise it better. As Annette Brooke said, we can introduce best practice and make suggestions because we cover the whole of the spectrum. It should not be forgotten that we work in the interests of the whole education community. It is not an "us and them" argument. My organisation is fundamentally interested in the improvement of education across the whole community.

  Q308  Annette Brooke: May I ask, Francis, whether all of this is just cosmetic to legitimise the independent sector? Will we really see changes as a consequence of the latest Charities Act?

  Professor Green: I do not have great hopes or expectations that it will lead to enormous change. There will be more difficulties in the proposals from the Charity Commission than Chris and colleagues are expecting. However, I am not an expert, and they look at what they do and how they configure their own schools better. As I understand it, public benefit means that people should not be excluded from the opportunity to benefit on the grounds of poverty. I am not saying what should or should not happen, but it may be interpreted in that way. There are millions of people in this country who are excluded from using private schools on grounds of poverty. Look at the fees. It is like the elephant in the room; it is so obvious. I think that the proposals will have some effect, and the effect could be more than cosmetic.

  Q309  Mr Slaughter: Boarding fees are probably about the same as the average income—about £20,000 a year. If I was paying that amount per child, I might have some objections. As you said so eloquently earlier on, you have already paid through your taxes and you are now paying a huge, phenomenal sum of money, and the resources that you are paying for are being given away to people who are not paying for them. Is that how parents and governors of independent schools react?

  Chris Parry: Each parent, governor and head will have to make their own choice. From my own point of view, there is a social responsibility for all institutions in this country. I spent 35 years in the public service, and if it was about money, I would not do the job, to tell you the truth. This is not about money; it is about community and social responsibility. We also live in a market-driven society.

  Q310  Mr Slaughter: That is exactly the opposite to what you said a few moments ago. You gave us a short lecture on why the Government should be providing state schools to which you felt able to send your children and that you were paying a penalty by sending them to independent schools. If the Government or the Charity Commission were then asking you effectively to pay a third time by giving back to the state for the use of other children the resources that you have not only paid for through taxes but through school fees as well, is that not something to which your school would object?

   Chris Parry: I cannot speak for the schools; it will be up to them. All I can do is give an opinion. My opinion is that there is a social responsibility and different schools will find different ways of providing that endowment. As you know, Winchester has suggested that it will put an extra rate on the fees. That is the only school so far that has suggested a direct pecuniary penalty to its parents. You will know that some schools have endowments. Christ's Hospital, for example, has a huge endowment. It gives bursaries and scholarships to the tune of 86% of its pupils. It has an endowment that serves a public purpose. Other schools will find ways in which they can extend educational provision. If I could just finish off what Professor Green said—we are in the area of opinion here—and while there is an ongoing consultation with the Charity Commission, none of us can say what the ultimate provision will be. Therefore, it is mere speculation at the moment. All I can say is that the law is very explicit at the moment about what constitutes public benefit, and that definition has not changed from the previous legislation. The definition of a charity fits every one of our schools at the moment. I am encouraging each of them to write to Dame Suzi Leather to show why they fit that particular charity status.

  Chairman: I am conscious that we have two sets of witnesses. Andy, do you want a quick further question?

  Q311  Mr Slaughter: I want to go back to the point that Annette was touching on. Is there not a big difference between saying, "You can use our playing fields and facilities when we are not using them"—that is not a great opportunity cost to the private school—and taking on a large project, such as sponsoring an Academy? Is that why you are objecting to that? You say, "Well, we'd rather spread our largesse around in a rather thinner way," but if independent schools were required to have a project that could take a substantial investment of time, money and dilution of their resources, that would be a sea change. That is what you are opposing, is it not?

  Chris Parry: No, I am opposing the idea that each independent school is the same as the others. We have some independent schools that are bumping along, just about able to provide provision with their resources and outputs. You cannot compare Winchester or Eton with some of the smaller schools around the country. Each will be able to contribute in its own way, according to its resources.

  Q312  Mr Slaughter: But subject to financial audit or capacity audit, there are clearly independent schools that are hugely well resourced and funded. In the end, it comes down to money and commitment. The idea that seemed to lie behind the Act—unless it was just a bone to throw to Labour Back Benchers—was that if we want to achieve something substantive, we should cut through the failings of schools that are barely able to keep their head above water. A lot of independent schools are highly successful and have huge resources, and could manage to take on a large project of that kind. Do you think that they should?

  Chris Parry: Given that you have just explained the flexibility that we require in the interpretation of the Act, I agree with you. That would enable schools to contribute according to their resources and expertise. But we do not know, and part of the problem with the Charity Commission is that some of its guidelines are incredibly confusing and do not give us any hard tack to bite on. Until we get that guidance—

  Mr Slaughter: It does not sound to me like we are getting engagement.

  Chris Parry: No, we cannot. We are not being given the ammunition to find out what our members can contribute. When we get better guidelines on 11 July, I can come back and give you a more sensible answer, perhaps.

  Chairman: We are very close to our time. Graham.

  Q313  Mr Stuart: A quick question, Professor Green: is there a danger that the impact of the Charity Commission could be that fees for those who are already struggling to pay them at institutions that are not so fabulously endowed as the tiny number at the top could be affected, with a detrimental effect on people of modest means who sometimes find their entire family contributing, because they think that local schools will not be able to perform for their children? Is there a danger?

  Professor Green: Is there a danger because they might lose their charitable or registered status?

  Mr Stuart: I am thinking of the impact on fees. If there were a cost when the new guidelines from the Charity Commission were enforced, while everyone was thinking about the Etons and Winchesters, could people be driven out of small schools providing SEN provision, for instance? It is an enormously diverse sector. Is there a danger that people of modest means in particular circumstances could be driven out of the independent sector because of additional costs imposed on it?

  Professor Green: A small danger, yes.

  Q314  Mr Stuart: On well-being, Professor Green, do you have any understanding of the comparative well-being of children in the independent sector and the maintained sector? Has there been any work on that?

  Professor Green: No independent research that I am aware of. That was not part of our research looking at children currently in school.

  Q315  Mr Stuart: Obviously, one of the big issues is that it appears from some research that we have the most miserable children in Europe overall. May I ask Chris Parry whether there is evidence that the sense of well-being is higher in the independent sector? It is not just about qualifications or earnings; it is also about bringing up happy, well-adjusted children.

  Professor Green: You will gather that one of my beefs is that here we have a sector that is very important and making a big contribution, yet the investment in it and understanding of it from people who are independent of the independent sector is relatively limited. What we have tried to do is to kick-start something that simply does not exist—people have been frightened off it and stayed away from it—to try to understand better its role in society. We need more research on it, and an additional academic response.

  Q316  Chairman: Have you done research on the contextual added value of the independent sector?

  Professor Green: Not personally, but there is one study available that shows that the independent sector adds more added value to qualifications than the state-maintained sector.

  Q317  Mr Stuart: Can I get an answer from Chris on whether he has any feeling about well-being?

  Chris Parry: The critical nexus is between parents, teachers and pupils. What we have achieved in the independent sector is a good relationship between the three. Two of the points of that triangle have a vital interest in the third point, which is the children. Our pastoral and educational strength, I think, complements the schooling that we provide.

  Q318  Mr Stuart: On regulation, we know that you were not happy about Ofsted's increased role in the regulation of independent schools, yet when we took evidence from Ofsted, its representatives appeared bewildered that you should have any such concerns. They did not seem to understand what those concerns were. Perhaps, for the benefit of the Committee, you could give us a clearer understanding of the problems.

  Chris Parry: We have our own independent schools inspectorate, which has functioned for many years and produces high levels of excellence and achievement. I am afraid that we are sceptical of Ofsted's ability to take on additional schools; it is barely able to deal with the number of schools under its control at the moment. We think that we have different standards of best practice, and we would not welcome a shotgun wedding between Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

  Q319  Fiona Mactaggart: Is there anything that the independent sector can learn from the maintained sector?

  Chris Parry: Yes, lots.

  Fiona Mactaggart: What?

  Chris Parry: There is a lot of best practice on both sides of the divide. I am regularly at the National School for College Leadership up in Nottingham, and it is quite clear that there is expertise. What they do not do is talk to each other. I said "sectarian divide" earlier. It is quite severe. There is an ideological problem between the independent and maintained sectors, but when you get people together, they are the same profession. They recognise that, and each realises that the other is human. From my own experience during the cold war, as I said earlier, I know that there are misperceptions about what is going on on the other side of the divide. I personally believe that we need to have more inter-sector transfer, so that people get experience in both sectors. There are different challenges in the maintained sector from those in the independent sector. We need to talk more—that is the first thing—and find out what we have in common, which, after all, is children, and then go on to build bridges. There are different perspectives and different things like that. What specifically can we learn? I think that we can learn things about discipline. It is a real myth that there are no discipline problems in the independent sector. Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls. What I call the 14-18 war always has to be fought by adults with children; there is no question about that. There are lots of things in that area. There are good partnership lessons that we can learn. Certainly, as the Government agenda rolls forward that says that we must engage more with our communities and increase partnerships, an incredible amount of good practice has come forward from the maintained sector that we can learn from. At the end of the day, it is a single community. The more we can drive the two sectors towards a single community in terms of perception and outputs for our children, the better it will be.

3   Note from witness: This is not true. Almost all independent schools in ISC membership are charities. Back

4   Note from witness: Not quite right-it was when she was training for the Olympics. Back

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