By Anthony Seldon

British independent schools are under more scrutiny today than at any point in their history. Never before have so many of the British elites wanted to use their services, and never before have they been so reluctant to spring to their defence.

The independent schools are the victims of their own success. While continuing to outperform the state sector in academic achievements, rising fees have lifted them beyond the reach of much of the middleclass bedrock that has filled their classrooms over the generations, and they are recruiting increasing numbers of affluent foreign pupils.

Recent reports from Sir Peter Lampl's think-tank, the Sutton Trust, and the findings of Alan Milburn, the former Labour MP and government adviser on social mobility, have shown that social inequality has grown in Britain, while the dominance of those educated in independent schools over the professions and whole swathes of public life has intensified. Despite 13 years of Labour governments from 1997 to 2010, committed to boosting state education and delivering equality of opportunity, Britain became a more unequal country. Indeed, social mobility is now less than it was 30 years ago.

Oxford and Cambridge universities, despite desperate attempts by them to boost entrants from working class backgrounds, remain dominated by public school students.

However much the state sector has improved, and it has strengthened considerably, the independent sector has improved all the more quickly, and its excellence in certain subjects, notably the sciences, mathematics and modern languages, means that its pupils are eagerly sought after by top universities.

The increasing talk now is of 'positive discrimination' to give state school children an easier hurdle to jump over to get into university. But this is an admission of failure that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's dream -- of improving state schools so much that no one would want to go to independent schools -- has failed.

Higher fee levels at independent schools have been a particular source of public anger. Since 1990, increases considerably above the rate of inflation have taken the price of a boarding school place to around £30,000 a year, beyond the pockets of most British families.

Higher salaries for teachers, not itself an unworthy cause, have been the biggest factor in this. Many boarding schools have resorted to bringing in children from overseas, notably from Russia and China, to make good their numbers. Some old and venerable boarding schools are now disproportionately full of foreign children, creating the impression that the schools are for the ultra-rich in Britain and abroad with few connections left in the communities from which they spring.

The children of Russian oligarchs, Chinese plutocrats, and the ultra-wealthy from Korea, Indonesia, Germany and Italy, keep some boarding schools in business. It might be good for Britain, if these children develop a life-long love of all things British given the influence that they are likely to wield in their own countries in future. After all, Britain has benefited enormously from all those who came from its former colonies to study at the London School of Economics and other universities.

It is a feather in Britain's cap, at a time when it badly needs feathers, for its schools to be viewed across the world as the cream of international education. Clearly, however, each school must be careful to maintain a proper balance between domestic and overseas students: it is not to the advantage of those children coming from abroad seeking a British experience if their fellow students are overwhelmingly foreign themselves.

The majority of British independent schools are not boarding. They are far more akin to the old-style state grammar schools, offering an excellent academic education and a five-day week. These independent schools charge much lower fees, ranging from £8,000 to £18,000 a year, roughly half that of the boarding schools. They are immune from some of the criticisms of the public boarding schools, but they too need to move with the times.

British schools and, indeed, universities have been oddly reluctant to set up branches overseas. This is in stark contrast to institutions from other countries, including the United States and Australia, and this insularity is regrettable.

Among universities, Nottingham has led the way, while among schools, Dulwich College, in South London, and Harrow have been at the forefront of the moves to establish British schools abroad. At Wellington College, we have held regular conferences encouraging schools and universities to think of reproducing themselves beyond these islands and momentum is building. Haileybury, in Hertfordshire, has set up in Kazakhstan, Brighton College in Abu Dhabi, and Repton in Dubai. It is vital if British education is to retain its prominence on the world stage that its educational institutions are at the forefront of establishing their names abroad. Wellington College itself opened an academy in Tianjin in China last year, we open in Shanghai in 2013/14 and are anxious to open in Hong Kong. All our schools are built in the same classical style as Wellington College, in Berkshire, ensuring that our DNA is firmly implanted abroad.

British independent schools can also replicate themselves at home, albeit with a different model. This is by setting up academies bearing the name of the mother school. We thus set up Wellington Academy, in Tidworth, Wiltshire, in 2009, and have plans to establish three more academies within the coming year.

In September 2011, in a meeting without historic precedent, Prime Minister David Cameron and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, summoned the heads of several leading independent schools, including Eton, Harrow and Rugby, into the Cabinet Room. The purpose was to exhort them to start academies, which Cameron sees as an essential step to bridging social divides in Britain and in raising attainment among poor-performing state schools.

The response has been lukewarm. It has been almost a year since the meeting, but few schools yet show signs of wanting to engage with the agenda. Some schools claim they are already making their contribution by offering 'bursaries', or fee support to those who cannot afford full fees. But a reliance on bursaries alone is not enough as it plucks the brightest and best out of state schools and does nothing to build bridges or trust between the independent and state sectors.

Independent schools in Britain could readily reclaim the mantle of being leading powerhouses in the nation. But to do so they will need to adjust their thinking. They may lead the world in examination results, but they are in danger of losing the moral purpose that animated their founders. They need to reach out to the state sector as never before and ensure they are part of the solution to reducing inequality in Britain, rather than part of the problem. Building links with overseas schools, or opening branches abroad, would show that they are playing their part in a wider vision of responsibility in the 21st century.


Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College and author of 'Blair Unbound' and 'Trust: How We Lost It and How to Get It Back'


© Global Viewpoint Network; Distributed by Tribune Media Services

World - The Risks for British Schools in Relying on Rich Foreign Pupils | News of the World