Closing the ‘enrichment gap’ between independent and state schools

13 December 2022

The disparities between independent and state schools have recently been brought into focus by debates about removing tax exempt status from independent schools, and new research on their arts provision.

The Labour Party recently announced that it would remove independent schools’ tax exempt status if elected. They estimate this could raise £1.5 billion for the public finances, creating a new funding stream to improve education in state schools.

While the policy polls as relatively popular, there has been much pushback on the plan from the press and representative bodies for independent schools. In this blog, we summarise the state of the arts in independent schools, describe data on the gulf in provision with state schools, and suggest some policy proposals for closing this gap. 

One of the most pronounced areas of disparity is in the provision of cultural enrichment opportunities. The range and quality of independent schools’ cultural facilities can be staggering. In 2017, a Sunday Times investigation found that private schools in London alone have 59 theatres between them, with many of them being state of the art. By contrast, the West End only has 42 theatres. 

A recent study by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) looked at a sample of 20 private schools and found that, between them, there were 33 theatre spaces for teaching and performance. All the studied schools had fine arts studios, provision for concert performances and 90% have extensive rehearsal space. Partly because of these facilities, all the schools are also able to offer a specialist provision ranging from photography, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, digital media and more. 

Money, visibility and prestige also allow private schools to attract support from industry professionals, including programmes such as ‘Artist or Film-maker in Residence’. Higher salaries allow these schools to pull in teaching staff (but also theatre managers and technicians) with extensive industry credentials. The PEC study looked at CVs of arts staff in private schools and found the National Theatre and West End among previous employers, with a large volume of film and TV credits. This closer relationship to industry gives private school pupils access to social networks and specialised teaching that give them a better chance of professional success in the creative industries. 

The differences with state schools

The vast resources of private schools leads to major disparities with the state sector in terms of pupils’ participation in cultural enrichment. According to a new study from Onward UK examining this gap:

  • Young people from the wealthiest tenth of the population are three times more likely to sing in a choir or play in a band than their peers from the poorest tenth
  • 50% of young people from the wealthiest tenth of pupils play a musical instrument, compared to just a third of those from the most deprived tenth 
  • Young people in the South East are twice as likely to say they play music outside of school than young people in the North East, and 40% more likely to do dance. This is likely partly due to the fact the country’s private schools are disproportionately concentrated in London and in the South East region

In line with the general relationship between education and employment, this disparity in access to cultural enrichment leads to underrepresentation of those from low-income families in the performing arts and creative industries. 

How to close the gap

Closing the ‘enrichment gap’ between private and state schools is vital. While there are many pathways to doing this, three strike us as especially tractable:

  • Support for extending the school day – A report by the Centre for Social Justice finds that the majority of private schools run an extended school day. This increases pupils’ opportunities to participate in cultural learning. An extended schools day policy was deployed in the 2000s to successfully improve state school pupils’ access to cultural learning. As such, the government could provide funding for state schools to extend their school day to offer cultural enrichment opportunities, with corresponding guidance on how this can be done without increasing teacher and school leader workload. The amount of funding here would need to account for current cost pressures on schools seeking to extend hours - such as the higher cost of energy. 

  • Mandated sharing of facilities – Private schools are routinely urged to meet their charitable requirements by sharing their extensive sports and arts facilities with state schools in their local area. While many independent schools already work in partnership with local state schools, the scale and character of these partnerships remains unclear. A more demanding approach from the government could lead to a greater quantity and quality of these facility-sharing arrangements. This may involve the removal of charitable status from private schools who do not establish these partnerships. 
  • The arts premium – State schools require more money to support improving the range and quality of arts provision in their setting. The government should deliver on its manifesto pledge – as per our manifesto request to all parties – to provide an arts premium of £270 million for cultural learning to state schools. The premium has been intermittently delayed and scrapped but can play a central role in topping up state sector funding for arts.