1970s class war outdated, says head
Parents who move house and shell out for tutors are paying as much for their child's education as those who choose to send them to a private school, a leading headmaster has suggested.
Alun Jones, principal of St Gabriel's in Newbury, argued that referring to independent schools as bastions of "elite and privilege" is outdated in an age when many mothers and fathers are supplementing their youngsters' schooling in other ways.
A significant proportion of "social apartheid" in the UK's schools is down to geography, with some families able to pay out for expensive housing close to an "exclusive" state school rather than paying out for private school fees, he said.
Mr Jones is the new president of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA), and the first man to be appointed to the post.
Speaking ahead of taking up the role, Mr Jones insisted that it is time to banish "stereotypical, out-of-date" references to the independent sector.
"It's going back to the old 1970s class war, it's so outdated, the reference to the independent sector as that type of elite and privilege."
He added: "My school, like many, many other GSA schools, are real world schools where mum and dad are working very hard to prioritise their income to benefit their children.
"And it's funny, I would say 80% of the social apartheid one sees in schools at the moment is actually because of geography, and some parents can access incredible education and incredibly successful schools because they can afford incredibly expensive housing in expensive areas of the country."
There is a question over what is the greatest privilege - paying school fees or moving into an expensive area, Mr Jones said.
"Some parents will actually prioritise their household income in order to make significant sacrifices to send their children to independent school, other parents will choose to look at geographical locations of where to buy and will be able to afford incredibly expensive housing in what they consider to be a far better school area.
"They supplement this with tutors and extra lessons in all sorts of other activities."
This does mean that some state schools "can end up being more exclusive than many independent schools", Mr Jones said.
He said the independent sector is doing all it can to improve access, with GSA schools currently spending more than £63 million on offering bursaries to pupils.
Over half of those that receive means-tested financial help have more than half of their fees paid for them.
Mr Jones, who has been principal of St Gabriel's, an independent girls' day school, since 2001, said private schools also offer as standard a broad curriculum and range of extra-curricular activities to their pupils.
One of his aims this year, he said, is to encourage greater engagement between fee-paying schools and government, adding that the independent sector is an important part of education in the UK.
"I actually think, for example, this constant bashing that we're getting to start academies, a good number of our schools do that, and are doing it very successfully, but that's only scratching the surface, that's only part of the picture," Mr Jones said.
"I think at the moment, nine out of 10 GSA schools are working in partnership with the state sector, I certainly do in Newbury."