An independent school in the United Kingdom is a school that is not financed by taxpayers or through the taxation system by local or national government, and is instead funded by private sources, predominantly in the form of tuition charges, gifts and long-term charitable endowments, and so not subject to the conditions of "maintained status" imposed by accepting state financing.
In England and Wales but not Scotland, some well-established independent schools, especially boys' boarding schools, are often referred to as "public schools", derived from the few schools reformed by the Public Schools Acts, but the term is also used for independent schools that are normally members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.
Most of the larger independent schools are either full or partial boarding schools, although many are now predominantly day schools; by contrast there are only a few dozen state boarding schools. Boarding-school traditions generally give a distinctive character to most UK independent education, even in the case of day-pupils.
Most independent schools, particularly the larger and older institutions, have charitable status. It is claimed by the Independent Schools Council that UK independent schools receive approximately £100m tax relief due to charitable status whilst returning £300m of fee assistance in public benefit and relieving the maintained sector (state schools) of £2bn of costs. The Charity Commission is currently formulating tests of public benefit for charitable schools as required by the Charities Act 2006.
The Independent Schools Council (ISC), through seven affiliated organisations, represents 1,289 schools that together educate over 80 per cent of the pupils in the UK independent sector. Those schools in England which are members of the affiliated organisations of the ISC are inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate under a framework agreed between ISC, the Government's Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). Independent Schools not affiliated to the ISC in England and Independent schools accredited to the ISC in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland are inspected through the national inspectorates in each country.
Independent schools in Scotland educate about 31,000 children. Although many of the Scottish independent schools are members of the ISC they are also represented by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, recognised by the Scottish Parliament as the body representing independent schools in Scotland. Unlike England, all Scottish independent schools are subject to the same regime of inspections by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education as local authority schools and they have to register with the Education and Lifelong Learning Directorate.
The large independent schools in Scotland include St Aloysius' College, Hutchesons' Grammar School, Loretto School, Dollar Academy, Strathallan School, Glenalmond College, Merchiston Castle School, Robert Gordon's College, George Watson's College, Gordonstoun and Fettes College.
Historically, in Scotland, it was common for children destined for independent schools (usually sons of the upper classes) to receive their primary education at a local school. This arose because of Scotland's long tradition of public education, which was spearheaded by the Church of Scotland from the seventeenth century, long before such education was common in England. Independent prep schools only became more widespread in Scotland from the late 19th century (usually attached to an existing secondary independent school, though exceptions such as Craigclowan Preparatory School and Cargilfield Preparatory School do exist), though they are still much less prevalent than in England. They are, however, currently gaining in numbers.
Independent schools are free to select their pupils, subject only to the general legislation against discrimination. The principal forms of selection are financial and academic, although credit may be given for musical, sporting or other promise. Some schools are more or less formally confined to a particular religion, or may require all pupils to attend services regardless of their personal religion. Nowadays most schools pay little regard to family connections, apart from siblings currently at the school.
Only a small minority of parents can afford school fees averaging over £23,000 per annum for boarding pupils and £11,000 for day pupils, with unpredictable extra costs for uniform, equipment and extra-curricular facilities. Some parents make immense sacrifices to send their children to these schools. Scholarships and Means-tested bursaries to assist the education of the less well-off are usually awarded by a process which combines academic and other criteria.
Independent schools must be highly competitive, or parents would not choose to pay dearly for education which is available from state schools free of charge. An important criterion for parents is likely to be their children's likely exam success, often assessed by annual league tables of schools' university, A-level and GCSE results. Thus independent schools are generally academically selective, using the competitive Common Entrance Examination at ages 11–13. Schools often offer scholarships to attract abler pupils, so as to improve their average results; the standard sometimes approaches the GCSE intended for age 16. Poorly performing pupils may be required to leave, and following GCSE results can be replaced in the sixth form by a new tranche of high-performing pupils, which may distort apparent results.
Independent schools, as compared with maintained schools, are generally characterised by more individual teaching; much better pupil-teacher ratios at around 9:1; longer teaching hours (sometimes including Saturday morning teaching) and homework, though shorter terms; more time for organised sports and extra-curricular activities; more emphasis on traditional academic subjects such as maths, classics and modern languages; an a broader education than that prescribed by the national curriculum, to which state school education is in practice limited. As boarding schools are fully responsible for their pupils throughout term-time, pastoral care is an essential part of independent education, and many independent schools teach their own distinctive ethos, including social aspirations, manners and accents, associated with their own school traditions. Many pupils aspire to send their own children to their old schools in their historical buildings, over successive generations. Most offer sporting, musical, dramatic and art facilities, sometimes at extra charges, although often with the benefit of generations of past investment.
Educational achievement is generally very good. Independent school pupils are four times more likely to attain an A* at GCSE than their non-selective state sector counterparts and twice as likely to attain an A grade at A level. A much higher proportion go to university; however studies have shown a deterioration in the performance of independent school students at university, compared to state educated students who may have learned to overcome disadvantages. Some schools specialise in particular strengths, whether academic, vocational or artistic, although this is not as common as it is in the State sector.
Independent schools are able to set their own discipline regime, with much greater freedom to exclude children, primarily exercised in the wider interests of the school: the most usual causes being drug-taking, whether at school or away, or an open rejection of the school's values, such as dishonesty or violence.
In England and Wales there are no requirements for teaching staff to have Qualified Teacher Status or to be registered with the General Teaching Council. In Scotland a teaching qualification and registration with the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) is mandatory for all teaching positions.
In England and Wales a preparatory school, or prep school in current usage, is an independent school designed to prepare a pupil for fee-paying, secondary independent school. The age range is normally eight to eleven or thirteen, although it may include younger pupils as well. An independent school which only caters for under eights is a "pre-prep" and the junior departments of prep schools which cover the first years of schooling are also called "pre-preps".
The Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS) is the prep schools heads association serving the top 500+ independent prep schools in the UK and Worldwide. IAPS is one of seven affiliated associations of the Independent Schools Council.
There are 130,000 pupils in over 500 schools of all types and sizes. Prep schools may be for boys or girls only, or may be co-educational. They may be day schools, boarding schools, weekly boarding, flexi-boarding, or a combination. They fall into the following general categories:
Some public schools are particularly old, such as The King's School, Canterbury (founded c.600), Sherborne School (founded c.710, refounded 1550 by Edward VI), Warwick School (c.914), The King's School, Ely (c.970), St Albans (948) Bedford School (granted Letters Patent by Edward VI in 1552, though the original school is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1085) Westminster School (1179 if not before), High School of Dundee (1239), Stamford School (re-endowed in 1532, but in existence as far back as 1309), Bablake School (1344), Winchester College (1382), Durham School (1414, possibly older) and Eton College (1440). Winchester College has maintained possibly the longest unbroken history of any school in England. These were often established for male scholars from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds; however, English law has always regarded education as a charitable end in itself, irrespective of poverty. For instance, the Queen's Scholarships founded at Westminster in 1560, are for "the sons of decay'd gentlemen".
The transformation of free charitable foundations into institutions which sometimes charge fees came about readily: the foundation would only afford minimal facilities, so that further fees might be charged to lodge, clothe and otherwise maintain the scholars, to the private profit of the trustees or headmaster; and also facilities already provided by the charitable foundation for a few scholars could profitably be extended to further paying pupils. (Some schools still keep their foundation scholars in a separate house from other pupils.) After a time, such fees would eclipse the original charitable income, and the original endowment would naturally become a minor part of the capital benefactions enjoyed by the school. In 2009, senior boarding schools were changing fees of between £16,000 and nearly £30,000 per annum.
The educational reforms of the 19th century were particularly important under first Thomas Arnold at Rugby, and then Butler and later Kennedy at Shrewsbury, the former emphasising team spirit and muscular Christianity and the latter the importance of scholarship and competitive examinations. Most public schools developed significantly during the 18th and 19th centuries, and came to play an important role in the development of the Victorian social elite. Under a number of forward-looking headmasters leading public schools created a curriculum based heavily on classics and physical activity for boys and young men of the upper and upper middle classes.
They were schools for the gentlemanly elite of Victorian politics, armed forces and colonial government. Often successful businessmen would send their sons to a public school as a mark of participation in the elite. Much of the discipline was in the hands of senior pupils (usually known as prefects), which was not just a means to reduce staffing costs, but was also seen as vital preparation for those pupils' later rôles in public or military service. More recently heads of public schools have been emphasising that senior pupils now play a much reduced role in disciplining.
To an extent, the public school system influenced the school systems of the British empire, and recognisably "public" schools can be found in many Commonwealth countries.
The role of public schools in preparing pupils for the gentlemanly elite in the period before World War II meant that such education, particularly in its classical focus and social mannerism, became a mark of the ruling class. For three hundred years, the officers and senior administrators of the "empire upon which the sun never set" (The British Empire) invariably sent their sons back home to boarding schools for education as English gentlemen, often for uninterrupted periods of a year or more at a time.
The 19th century public school ethos promoted ideas of service to Crown and Empire, understood by the broader public in familiar sentiments such as "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game" and "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton". Ex-pupils often had a nostalgic affection for their old schools and a public school tie could be useful in a career, so an "old boy network" of former pupils became important.
The English public school model influenced the nineteenth century development of Scottish private schools, but a tradition of the gentry sharing primary education with their tenants kept Scotland comparatively egalitarian.
Acceptance of social elitism was set back by the two World Wars, but despite portrayals of the products of public schools as "silly asses" and "toffs" the old "system" at its most pervasive continued well into the 1960s, reflected in contemporary popular fiction such as Len Deighton's The IPCRESS File, with its sub-text of supposed tension between the grammar school educated protagonist and the public school background of his superior but inept colleague. Postwar social change has however gradually been reflected across Britain's educational system, while at the same time fears of problems with state education have pushed any parents who can afford the fees or qualify for bursaries towards public schools, which are now often referred to as independent schools.
Between 1964 to 1997, all British Prime Ministers were educated at state schools. Labour Party leaders Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell , Michael Foot and Tony Blair were educated at independent schools, but the current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, attended a state school. Whilst the current Conservative leader, David Cameron was educated at Eton (and the Conservatives Shadow Chancellor George Osborne attended St Paul's School), all Conservative leaders from 1965 to 2005 were educated at state schools. Without precedent, both main candidates in the recent election for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats were educated at the same independent school, Westminster School.
In 2003, 84.5% of senior Judges in England and Wales were educated at independent schools, as surveyed in 2003 by law firm SJ Berwin LLP. This is especially significant considering that just 7% of all British children are educated at independent schools.
Independent schools are often criticised for being elitist. Many of the best-known public schools are extremely expensive. Going some way to countering the charge of exclusivity, a large number (c. one third) of independent school pupils have assistance with fees. The Thatcher government introduced the Assisted Places Scheme in England and Wales in 1980, whereby the state paid the school fees for those students capable of gaining a place but unable to afford the fees. This was essentially a response to the decision of the previous Labour government in the mid-1970s to remove government funding of direct grant grammar schools, most of which then became private schools; some Assisted Places pupils went to the former direct-grant schools such as Manchester Grammar School. The scheme was terminated by the Labour government in 1997, and since then the private sector has moved to increase its own means-tested bursaries.
The former classics-based curriculum was also criticised for not providing skills in sciences or engineering. It was Martin Wiener's opposition to this tendency which inspired his 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980. It became a huge influence on the Thatcher government's opposition to old-school gentlemanly Toryism.
Some parents complain that their rights and their children’s are compromised by vague and one-sided contracts which allow Heads to use discretionary powers unfairly, such as in expulsion on non-disciplinary matters. They believe independent schools have not embraced the principles of natural justice as adopted by the state sector, and private law as applied to Higher Education.
Generally political attacks on private schools have been opposed by concern that there should be no totalitarian state control of education, and undoubtedly by influential "Old Boys" (former pupils) who tend to be fiercely protective of their Old Schools.
In 2006, students at fee-paying schools made up 43.4% of those selected for places at Oxford University and 38% of those granted places at Cambridge University, although such students made up only 7% of the school population. Independent schools are to some extent selective and may give a better education to their more motivated students than some non-fee-paying schools. Research carried out by the University of Warwick in 2002 suggested that a student educated at an independent school has an 8% lower chance of getting a first or an upper second degree than a state school pupil who enters university with the same A-level grades.
A major area of debate in recent years has centred around the continuing charitable status of independent schools, which allows them not to charge VAT on school fees. Following the enactment of the Charities Bill, which was passed by the House of Lords in November 2006, charitable status is based on an organisation providing a "public benefit" as judged by the Charity Commission. Pending the Charity Commission publishing its definitive guidance on "public benefit" at the end of 2008, there remains an incentive for independent schools to share their sporting, musical and other facilities with the public or local state schools, and supplement their charitable endowments with an increased number of subsidised scholarships and bursaries.
Defenders of fee-paying schools highlight the fact that the abolition of such schools or the reduction in private school numbers (as would likely result from the removal of charitable status and VAT exemption) would constitute a "levelling-down" of standards and would therefore lead to a worsening of educational standards overall. The response from opponents of independent schools is that the benefit which would then accrue to children and schools currently outside the fee-paying sector as a result of the abolition of fee-paying schools (via peer-group effects and increased levels of parental concern and scrutiny of the way schools are run) would more than offset the disbenefit to children removed from the fee-paying sector, although actual evidence for this theory is lacking.