Independent schools are often associated with the middle classes and the privileged. When we imagine these schools we think of Eton and Harrow, of the gentry, and the rich and famous. We often imagine the oak lined libraries and the tail-coat uniforms.
Parents often pay small fortunes to secure places in those schools with the ‘best reputations’ for excellence. We also associate these schools with better access to Oxbridge Universities and other such establishments, with reputations for supplying the country with its most influential and powerful servants. Army officers, doctors, politicians, bankers, lawyers, judges and sports personalities are often the alumni of these prestigious institutions. Secret societies, influences in corporate business, access to people and places some of us can only dream of.
You may or may not agree with the concept of private education and the fact that some people can afford to pay for, what they believe, is a better education. But did you know about the hidden side of independent education? Did you know that right now thousands of ‘other’ children are being educated in independent schools? Did you know than millions and millions of pounds of tax payer’s money is being spent in private schools across the land?
Let me introduce you to the world of Independent Special Schools. These schools are not funded by parents but by local councils. The education budget is diminished annually by more than £500 million to pay for places in independent special schools. These schools are often miles away from the children’s home and can cost in excess of £100,000 per year. Just the transport costs alone to these schools, paid for by the tax payer, costs over £43 million a year.
Data from a HTRT Freedom of Information request (completed by 113 Local Authorities) shows that 11,059 pupils attended independent special schools during the last academic year. This was at a total cost of £535,864,599 per year. This is a staggering amount of money!
Details by Local Authority may be found in the spreadsheet below:
So what is the true cost of this hidden education? Why do we educate so many children with Special Needs in the independent sector? Let me try to shine a light on this from the humble point of view of a state funded special school head teacher.
I would first like to make it clear that, in my experience, most independent schools do a fantastic job educating our most vulnerable and challenging children. They deal with extremes of need and do it well. This is in no way any sort of attack on those individual schools, and our Special Needs children deserve the very best. This is a reflection on why we are in a situation where millions and millions of pounds are being spent on private education when it could be more cost effective for the money to remain in the state sector.
At a time when austerity measures are at their peak and school budgets are stretched beyond belief why do we spend all this money on private education?
There are two reasons why SEN children attend these schools. The first is to do with the degree of specialism required to meet the needs of the children. In other words, highly specialist schools requiring extreme resourcing to meet the needs of the children. This is a legitimate reason and I would never deny our children what they need. However, why does it have to be in the independent sector? The second reason is that we haven’t got enough space in our state funded schools so we pay extreme amounts of money for them to go to independent schools. These children could and often do have their needs adequately met in much lower cost state provision.
The average cost of an Independent school SEN place is approximately £43,000 per year. This is more than double the cost of a place at my school. When you add the cost of transport this then rises to an average of £48,000. Pupils often have very long journeys to and from school or need residential provision, at additional cost, because school is so far away.
We are educating children in high cost schools because we haven’t got enough school places to educate them cheaper. We are trapped in a cycle of continuous high cost places because there is no easy mechanism to build state funded specialist provision. Just think of the savings that could be made that could then be put in to mainstream education to support inclusion.
So what is the answer? Be strategic, be sensible, look at the data and the finance. Let’s build new special schools or expand the current ones. Let’s try to keep these vulnerable children closer to their families and educated in their own communities. Let’s save money and fund mainstream schools with adequate amounts of cash to provide effective provision. Let’s encourage schools, financially and through Ofsted judgements, to be inclusive. Let us champion schools who work with special needs children and give them a financial bonus to do so. Let’s challenge Ofsted to place on a metaphorical pedestal those schools with more special needs children than average. Let us all be proud when we have children with additional needs in our schools without fear of this impacting on our progress 8, Ebacc or league table standings.
Let’s just be sensible, morally driven and use our money better for the good of these children. It’s time we took the pie and divided it up differently.
Dave Whitaker is the Executive Principal of Springwell Special Academy & Springwell Alternative Academy and Director of Education (SEN & AP) Wellspring Academy Trust.
He is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable Core Group