As a young pupil of Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school in Bristol, Chris King used to take his cap off as soon as he passed through its castle-like gates into the outside world. “God help us if somebody from another school was passing by, they’d knock it off your head,” he says.
But he is worried that discrimination against children from “elite” schools has soared to a “different level”. While a selective school-educated child from a “socially tough” part of town might once have faced snowballs or hat-grabbing from their comprehensive school peers, “now they just have stones chucked at them”.
King says he knows of recent cases of families from deprived areas turning down 100 per cent bursaries from fee-paying schools. “Before, there would be a certain pride in the local community in that child. That’s all gone.”
King has spent much of the past eight years representing independent schools on the national stage, first as chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and, since 2018, as chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS). Before that, he spent three decades teaching and leading selective and independent schools across England.
A perceived backlash against fee-paying schools is something he is particularly concerned about, given Labour’s proposals to take away their charitable status and charge 20 per cent VAT on fees.
King is also wary of journalists who perpetuate an image of independent schools based on J K Rowling’s Hogwarts – or worse, “that awful photograph of children with top hats and the street urchins alongside them”. (He’s referring to the iconic “Toffs and Toughs”, taken in Harrow, 1937).
He’s also pretty cross about “ridiculous” reports that imply the expulsion of Russian oligarchs has financially impacted his sector, so creating a false image of “super-wealthy” parents.
He had hoped through his national roles he might be able to overcome this “lack of understanding”. But he admits to “great frustration” that “we’re a minority interest for the government”.
From sewage to school teacher
King’s career has certainly come a long way from when he started out in sewage. After graduating with a geography degree from Durham, he joined Wessex Water in a role involving sewage management.
In the 1970s, as now, sewage was pumped into our waterways but it was “really difficult to get money spent in the right places. There were no votes in sewage” because “most people don’t see it”.
King opted to switch to teaching and after getting his qualification at Durham, started at Sutton Valence School in Kent.
Remarkably, it was not until 26 years later in 2001, as head of Leicester Grammar School, that anyone ever observed King teach – and then only because he “insisted”.
“I don’t think it could happen now,” he says. “Judgment on my teaching was based on my reputation coming from the children. Maybe there’s something in that.”
He thinks privately-educated children have more self-confidence to speak out if they feel a teacher is “rubbish. Children are very shrewd, they know who the best teacher is and appreciate consistency and fairness. The discipline line can be different between teachers, as long as they consistently apply it.”
After a stint as head of geography at Rendcomb College, Gloucestershire, King moved to the 400-year-old Kimbolton School, Cambridgeshire, which is based in a castle.
He was the first deputy head appointed from outside existing staff, and recalls it as a “culture shock”.
Certain staffroom chairs were reserved for senior, long-serving teachers. But King “wasn’t having anything of it” and sat wherever he wanted. “I had quite a lot of fun in a slightly sad way upsetting some of the older staff members.”
But time and age have “mellowed” King, who is now “more accepting” of such traditions and has “come to value” people with different life perspectives.
Labour plans and education ‘apartheid’
But the mellow nature is soon cast aside when talking about Labour’s plans to take away private schools’ charitable status.
The party – likely to form the next government – has pledged to invest the £1.7 billion-a-year the policy would raise to recruit 6,500 new teachers.
King takes a swipe at politicians from all parties and their “unwillingness to openly connect themselves” with their own private or selective school background, which is often seen as a “criticism rather than something to be praised”.
A 2019 Elitist Britain report showed 29 per cent per cent of MPs were privately-schooled, compared with about 6 per cent nationally.
King claims British independent school heads are “regarded incredibly highly and instantly so” everywhere in the world. But within this country they “don’t get the recognition in the sense of being drawn into discussions about curriculum development, pastoral care and education”.
“It’s very difficult to get a voice for the sector. There’s an apartheid situation, which is not of our creation.”
King warns that a “swingeing” 20 per cent VAT on fees would reduce the ability of independent schools to afford outreach, bursaries and scholarships, making them “more socio-economically exclusive”.
The Independent Schools Council says nearly £1.2 billion has been provided over the past year in fees assistance, up 4.8 per cent on the previous year. The value of means-tested bursaries and scholarships has risen 78 per cent, by more than £200 million, since 2011.
King believes that the tax hike would lead to closures “without a doubt”, leaving a “significant number of children looking for places in the state sector”.
Independent schools are doing “a great deal of work behind the scenes” to explain all this to Labour representatives, as well as MPs more generally.
Are they listening? “To some extent.” But King believes Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, and Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, have “dug into positions” on their plans.
King and some other heads’ associations are already “planning for the worst and hoping for the best” by telling their members to budget ahead for potential tax hikes in 2024-25. Potential staff redundancies could be involved, King warns.
For now, pupil numbers at IAPS member schools are “up” – from 191,000 last year to 195,736 in January – despite the economic downturn. The organisation represents more than 650 prep schools, most of which are in the UK.
King believes this reflects what happened during the Covid lockdown. “The education experience parents saw shone a light on a contrasting position between … the state … and the independent sector. The spotlight, when it was shone, really showed the depths of the quality of education [in the independent sector].”
But energy bills – almost half of the ISC’s 1,388 members have pools to heat – mean the “forward” view is of a “really challenging environment”.
However King is optimistic his sector is flexible and resilient enough to overcome future hurdles.
Teacher recruitment challenges
Another challenge is finding subject-specialist teachers, which is “harder now than it’s ever been”, prompting independent schools to extend their reach overseas.
He says teaching abroad 15 years ago would “probably be a death knell to your career back in the UK”. Now there is more ebb and flow.
“Now it is probably regarded as advantageous if somebody had some years abroad, particularly in the Middle East.”
But it still leaves schools having to “appoint in haste and repent at leisure”.
King says “many dozens” of prep schools are now adopting a curriculum pioneered by St Faiths Prep School in Cambridgeshire that is designed around engineering and in which pupils learn maths “almost without knowing it”.
But he derides the prime minister’s proposals for all pupils in England to study maths to 18 as “absolutely ridiculous”.
Partnerships with state sector
But one area private schools are keen to get involved is in setting up new elite sixth forms.
Eton College is teaming up with Star Academies to open three in Dudley, Oldham and Teesside, a move that King says is reflective of much “partnership work” off the radar with state schools.
“A lot of it happens very quietly, partly because politically if a lot of noise was made about it in local authority areas more ideologically driven to object to independent schools, those linkages would be severed overnight,” he says.
“I know of instances where independent school heads don’t want any publicity [about that work] because they fear the spotlight would give pause for people to object and bring it to an end. It’s a terrible situation.”
The ISC says 936 of its 1,388 member schools are involved in 6,963 partnerships with state schools, including 2,362 sports partnerships. King believes such partnership work is one way a government might deem whether a school is “charitable” or not.
But the intention behind them is not purely altruistic. The “best schools recognise” some parents’ concern that a fee-charging school could turn their child into a “posh, arrogant snob they won’t recognise”, and “want their child to be able to talk with prince or pauper with equal ease”.
“The idea that a successful independent school operates behind the drawbridge that separates them from the local community is an historic manner of behaviour of our schools,” he adds. “Schools naturally want to be part of their local community.”