The abolition of the assisted places scheme and grammar system has contributed to a decline in social mobility

As the headmistress of an independent girls’ secondary school, it might be reasonable to expect criticism from those who probably have never had first-hand experience of life in an independent school. But we shouldn’t shirk issues for fear of stoking the fire.

Selective schooling, both state-funded and independent, has been the subject of controversy for decades. The grammar system and assisted places in independent schools throughout history at times have been lauded as drivers of social mobility; on others they have been lambasted as further entrenching and widening class divisions.

Both grammar schools and the abolished assisted places scheme (APS) in independent schools were established with the primary aim of aiding social mobility by allowing able children to access what was perceived to be a more “academic” education, regardless of their family circumstances.

In a small way, bursaries replicate what the APS achieved

Yet both schemes were criticised for failing to help their intended audiences, instead supporting those in the “squeezed middle”.

A study by the University of Oxford published last month suggests that social mobility has declined in recent decades; I would suggest the abolition of the APS and grammar system has contributed to this.

Another study of grammars in the 2013 Oxford Review of Education concludes that selective education benefits social mobility.

This might suggest that selective education is not the sole solution to the “greater good”. But should we heed calls to actively dismantle a system that statistically helps as many as it can?

We work with the systems in place, and the benefits of a selective education should not, under any circumstances, be underestimated.

Research that studied children on APS places in independent schools, regardless of socioeconomic class or engagement with school at the time, shows that all demonstrated a higher degree of social mobility as a result of their placement.

Even those who did not attend university were in professional occupations and in social circles that reflected middle-class values and aspirations.

Consequently, they then choose independent education for their own children at rates far higher than the national average (close to 50 per cent compared with 7 per cent). This clearly supports the initial aspirations of the APS to improve social mobility for children from lower socio-economic classes.

There is a continuing appetite from all political parties to improve educational outcomes for children from working-class and disadvantaged backgrounds, and rightly so.

Peer-reviewed recognition that the comprehensive system has failed to increase social mobility has paved the way for government policy changes that encourage a more diverse offering.

The Sutton Trust recommends that including academically selective and/or independent schools in the wider education spectrum is one method of achieving the government’s desired improvement in social mobility.

In its chairman’s words: “The chance to democratise entry to 100 or more of our highest-performing academic [independent] schools should not be missed and would be a tremendous boost for social mobility.”

Independent schools, through their bursary schemes, replicate in a small way what the government-funded APS achieved on a much larger scale.

This is not a salve to our conscience, or a convenient tax-dodge conferred by charitable status, but a genuine desire to support individuals as much as we are able. Within our foundation of schools, the generous support of alumni and others enables us to extend our financial
support even further, providing extra assisted places to bright local children through The Burton Bursaries.

None of us would deny that an excellent education for all would be the ideal, and I would implore local authorities and the government to recognise this by putting in place more funding and bursary schemes to enable more students to attend the school of their choice. If we cannot work on the macro level with the system as it stands, we work with what we can have an effect upon – the individuals whose prospects are changed by financial support to attend an independent school.