How Different Are Independent Schools?


Are independent schools so very different? I would argue that the vast majority of the difference is cultural, rather than financial. It should be possible for a state school with strong enough leadership and a clear enough vision to build a culture as good – or better – than most independent schools. In fact, as I wrote after my visit to Michaela, I think it’s flattering independent schools to say that Michaela has a ‘private school ethos’. Michaela has a stronger commitment to a traditional knowledge-rich education and the formation of good habits than do most private schools, and a more coherent plan for delivering on this commitment.

I’ve worked in three state schools (all comprehensives), and three independent. The following are my highly unscientific reflections on the differences I have observed.

Staff in independent schools are, on the whole, grateful to their employers, and feel a sense of loyalty to the school. Staff absences are rare. Unless independent schools are miraculously preserved from the usual amount of the common cold virus, I would judge that this is because of this sense of loyalty and gratitude.

In comparison, I have seen relatively little loyalty or gratitude amongst staff in state schools. And I am not blaming the rank and file staff for this! I have seen a lot of the ‘us against them’ mentality, in which management are seen as there to make the lives of ordinary staff more difficult. Why should they feel any gratitude towards them, therefore?

This is one of the biggest contrasts, actually: the attitude towards management. Where management are tough and strict, staff in state schools will tend to appreciate them. They are pleased that the name of the senior manager strikes fear into the hearts of their pupils, because it is useful. It is a threat which pupils take seriously, if they are told that they might have to go to see the headteacher. On the other hand, if headteachers are liberal and slack, they are viewed with utter scorn by rank and file staff. Whatever they might try to do is not taken seriously. This is little commented upon. A weak headteacher’s impact on pupil discipline is often noted. But what about the impact on teacher motivation and loyalty?

In an independent school, there is not this urgent need for management to prove themselves. They can be nice and genteel, and perhaps a bit soft, but it just doesn’t matter so much. Senior management are seen more as colleagues, because there is not the horrendous behaviour problem to deal with. Still, the strictest and most well-organised central discipline system I have come across (outside Michaela!) was in the country boarding school where I worked about a decade ago.

Attitudes towards teaching methods vary hugely as well. In independent schools, there is little interest in applying the latest theory in the classroom; although senior management might talk about it, they do not enforce it in the way it is enforced in many state schools, where the mind police really go to town, and thoughtcrime certainly exists. As a result, teachers in independent schools just get on with doing what they think best. This doesn’t mean all the teaching is marvellous, by any means, but there is not the same stifling atmosphere of ideological conformity combined with bureaucratic box-ticking that I have seen in the state sector. The old traditionalists get on with it, and they are usually left to do so. They don’t get hounded out of the classroom by fear of a negative Ofsted judgement.

This laissez-faire attitude towards teaching methods has served independent schools fairly well so far, but it will get less and less effective as time goes on. The influence of progressive ideas is getting stronger, as more and more young teachers with PGCEs and state school educations join the independent school workforce. Just bumbling along is not going to be a strong enough defence against the tide of relativism, with its scepticism of knowledge and its resulting insistence upon politically correct conformity.

This is the overall picture of independent education. They have bumbled along, not changing too much, but still gradually dumbing down as the years go by. After all, most of them are doing the same, or similar, public examinations to those used in the state sector. Their syllabus is bound to be influenced, and their attitudes along with that. And there are so few people left nowadays who have received a rigorous education themselves, that as the old school retire, who will replace them?

Only those who have a clear vision for a knowledge-rich education and are determined to fight for it will be able to resist the encroachments of a culture committed to relativism and empty conformity. It may be that there are more visionary heads able to do this in the state sector than the independent in the decades to come. We shall see.

One thing is certain. It’s not the money, but the ideas and commitment of those who lead which make the difference.

(Image from Wikimedia)


2 thoughts on “How Different Are Independent Schools?

  1. A key difference (from my experience): ethos. In independent schools, it is seen as a good thing to be intelligent, pursue further knowledge and to want to focus on all things academic; the child who works hard and excels is celebrated. In state schools, all things academic are seen as an embarrassment that might hurt the feelings of children who struggle. Instead, the focus is on social engineering and correcting society’s problems; the child who works hard and excels is made to feel guilty, embarrassed and ashamed of their success.


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