The landscape of education is ever-evolving with schools apparently at the top of the list for government initiatives and attention. Outside the state sector, though, things also appear to be far from rosy, recent headlines even giving the impression that private education is heading towards crisis.
Parents of Red House School at Norton are the latest in the North East to be told of a possible merger, in their case with Teesside High School.
It follows the announcement that Sunderland High School, founded in 1883, will close at the end of this academic year due to falling numbers, from 580 a decade ago to around 280.
Last year Polam Hall School, in Darlington, founded in 1848 as a finishing school for girls, converted to a state free school after previously adapting to accept boys. Nearby Hurworth House boys’ school closed in 2010.
Further north, the previously private King’s School in Tynemouth merged with the state-run Priory Primary in 2013 to become King’s Priory School, a state academy.
In 2014, Newcastle High School for Girls was borne out of a merger between Central Newcastle High School and Newcastle Church High School. At the time it was described as a strategic move and “an exciting opportunity” that would allow the merged school to grow.
St Bees boarding school in Cumbria closed last year after 432 years, again due to dwindling numbers.
With parents seeking small class sizes and a nurturing, family environment, size is everything when it comes private schools, but their commitment to keeping rolls low seems to be at odds with economics. And now it seems the luxury of staying small may be something over which they have little influence.
For the private sector, affordability remains the biggest challenge, even post-recession, although comments by some head teachers in the south that boarding schools risk being turned into “finishing schools for the children of oligarchs” is way off the mark in the north where local families remain as the majority and overseas and military families take up the remaining places.
If pressure on maintaining numbers wasn’t enough, Good Schools Guide founder and editor-in-chief Lord Lucas recently cautioned that “massively improving” state education could have the effect of driving independent schools out of business.
The North East does have some outstanding state schools achieving remarkable results – selective Ripon Grammar School, one of the country’s few state boarding schools, and non-selective Emmanuel College, Gateshead, and Carmel College, in Darlington to name a few.
That’s not to say the state sector isn’t under pressure too, of course, with significant cuts to budgets and Ofsted’s imposing ever increasing demands in performance. Meanwhile, a list of Department for Education favourite sponsors are poised ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble.
Private or state, all schools are in a constant battle to find good teachers amid predictions of a national shortage.
Despite the gloom, there are some shining lights in the private sector, schools that are not only full but also investing significantly in facilities, such as the new purpose-built sixth form centre at Barnard Castle School, in County Durham. Here headmaster Alan Stevens explains why his school’s parents remain keen to go private and why the North East needs a strong independent sector:
“There are many reasons why I am confident that parents will continue to choose the private sector.
Our children leave us ready for the next step with confidence and a wealth of experiences that the state sector simply cannot provide.
Our deputy head saw this at first hand on a school trip to Iceland last year when comparing the broad range of experiences our children enjoyed with those from a state school on the same trip. Our staff carry out all the required risk assessments but common sense, a high expectation of how our children will behave and their respect for that expectation opens up more opportunities for them. It also allows us to run one of the biggest school Combined Cadet Forces, the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and overseas sports tours, expeditions and educational residentials every year.
I know that some state schools have restricted excursions because staff feel the work involved is onerous, but we maintain a full programme of educational and adventure visits from our youngest pupils in Pre-Prep to our sixth form.
We are fortunate to have many good state schools in the region yet our parents have made a conscious decision to go private. Independent education isn’t cheap, but it represents choice and a worthwhile investment for many families. A minority may fall into the ‘wealthy’ category but most are ‘ordinary’ families who make sacrifices to send their children to Barney.
We strive to offer the best value for money, and to be as accessible and affordable as we can be, offering a generous means-tested bursary scheme. Our fees are among the lowest in the sector but still many families choose to live in modest homes and forego family holidays or a new car to fund their child’s education. Whether they run their own business or are employed, they work long hours to pay for it as evidenced by the number of children using our extended day activities and flexi boarding facility.
Wraparound education is important to many working parents who want to be safe in the knowledge that their child is being looked after by teachers who know them personally, is engaging in constructive and healthy activities and even able to have their breakfast or dinner at school before being collected.
Independent schools do a good job for children, the country and the region. The investment parents make in their children’s education here goes back into the local economy through staff salaries and a whole host of supplier contracts, from transport to uniform, catering to gardening.
We also attract investment from overseas through our international students.
Private schools contribute towards making the region an attractive place to live and set down family roots.
If you are a senior executive of one of the global corporations that has invested in the North East but can’t find the private school you want in the region, you will simply spend your money to board your children elsewhere. In the worst cases it might put those executives off coming here at all. Whatever your views on independent education, that is not good news for the region.
Looking ahead we want our children to return after completing degrees at university to build their careers or to start businesses here.