Levelling up – the transformative power of bursaries and how we might level up rather than dumb down. By Charlie Minogue, Headmaster, Moor Park, Ludlow, Shropshire…
If a random sample of British adults were to play a game of word association when the chosen words were ‘prep’, ‘independent’ or ‘private school’, the results would be predictable. ‘Posh’, ‘exclusive’ and ‘expensive’ might make an appearance, although so might ‘excellence’, ‘results’ and ‘success’. Placed against these pre-conceptions of independent education, it is easy to see why some politicians feel the days of independent schools’ charitable status to be numbered.
Even as a Headmaster of an independent prep school, I sometimes struggle, morally, to reconcile the opportunities that we can create with the reality for many children across the country, despite the best efforts of so many fellow professionals in maintained schools. Having started my career in the state sector, I only made the switch because I felt I would have the freedom to design an education that worked in the fullest sense and the ability to create something unique and bespoke for every child is a joy. The moral tension comes from considering why this is only available for those who can afford it, although surely it can never be right to knock excellence and reduce everything to the lowest common denominator in the quest for equality.
The charitable status of most independent schools hides, from some, our need to balance the books. This is particularly challenging in prep schools where the fees are lower and the margins tighter: the preconceptions of wealth held by many are simply incorrect in most cases. Competition between prep schools can be fierce and the need to demonstrate relative strength and quality over rival schools is essential. This need creates a tension between the school as a business and the school as a charity, and it would be easy for Heads and Bursars to prioritise the former at the expense of the latter. Not only would this be morally wrong, it is also a short-term and blinkered course of action and schools, even small prep schools, need to factor creating inclusivity into their business plans so that they are a charity in action as well as in name.
I can’t describe the satisfaction to be gained from watching a child benefit from support from the school as a charity. It feels right, is transformative for those involved, and justifies the charitable status of the school. All involved benefit. Given appropriate levels of financial and strategic planning, it is possible, even for small independent schools, to provide their brand of education to a wider cross-section of society and this broadening of access to the best of British education is something to be celebrated. In senior schools, the level of bursary support is greater again, with many schools actively seeking to broaden access with bursaries of up to 100% of the fees and some even work with prep schools to create a pathway from prep school entry through to the end of their secondary education.
The provision of bursaries demonstratively levels up society in some small way but the scale of what is possible is, of course, not enough. There is no philosophical barrier to opening our doors to the whole of society. I know of no Head of an independent school who would not leap at the chance to open their doors and provide an education for free, and any blockage to this is caused by pure economics.
What is the answer? Well, we can look to the rest of the world for examples of how state and private education co-exist far more equitably than they do in the UK. In this country, all taxpayers fund state education but only some are using it, the others choosing to pay extra for their children to be educated privately. In other countries, the money follows the child and parents may choose to top this sum up to have their child attend an independent school. This broadens access, meaning that there is no need for charitable status tax perks and the gap between private and state is much narrower.
I can’t think of an argument against making this a reality, other than it may be politically inconvenient to do so.
We need to find ways of providing the best possible education to all children in the UK and, whilst there is a moral imperative on schools to offer bursaries and broaden access, there must surely also be a duty for government to be more creative and forward thinking in finding ways to level up without dumbing down.