Just before Christmas, one of my case study schools, in the provincial Northern city in my PhD study won a national school of the year award. Whilst it maintains a comprehensive intake, though as elsewhere this is less true after 16, its academic results are high, and the sixth form has a reputation for sending a significant numbers to the Russell Group and a handful to Oxbridge. As such it is similar in relative terms London’s ‘super state’ schools used by Gove, Cameron, the Blairs and others to avoid the political opprobrium of going private. The colonization of certain “comprehensive” schools in middle class neighbourhoods is common across the country. However, across the cities of Northern England, this strategy may be occurring more frequently with the post-crisis pressures on middle class incomes, entrenching the geographic divide around private schooling.
An article in the Financial Times last year noted the extent to which independent schooling is in crisis in the North of England. Since the financial crisis of 2008-09, pupil numbers in the independent sector have continued to increase in London and, to a lesser degree, in East Anglia and the South-East whilst elsewhere in the UK they have fallen, particularly in the North of England (Figure 1). My home city of Sheffield has only three large independent schools and two small religious private schools. In 2012, it was suggested in the local press that a surge in student numbers at feeder schools for certain suburban secondary schools in the South-West of the city, was linked to parents who would previously have gone private. If true, this might imply a post-crisis shift in behaviour amongst a particular middle-class grouping which previously used the private sector. I want to explore briefly, how regional differences in private school are linked to different regional class structures and how independent school participation has varied regionally over time.
Regional differentiation in private school participation is not just a short term blip. Whilst the Independent Schools’ Council (ISC), like the Financial Times, argued that this down-turn in pupil numbers is related to the financial crisis, this is only half the story. The ISC (2014: 3, 11) also note that independent schools are concentrated in London, the South-East and East-Anglia. This division appears to have been growing over the last 30 years, not just since the financial crisis as the private sector across the South-East has expanded dramatically. Comparing school and pupil numbers with the oldest available ISC census report, 1984, with 2014 data, provides an indication of long-term trends. In absolute and relative terms growth in pupil numbers in the North and other regions seen minimal growth over the last 30 years, whilst the South-East, London and East Anglia have seen substantial increases. Only the East Midlands has seen a substantial decline in numbers, a finding which deserves further attention. The North now constitutes a much smaller proportion of the independent school population as a whole, as intake has remained relatively static over this longer time frame despite recent decreases. In contrast the Southern regions all have larger proportions of young people using the independent sector than 30 years ago.
Bradford and Burdett (1990; 1989) described this geographical division as a ‘consumption cleavage’ along the social/geographical boundary from the Severn to the Wash, which split the North and the South in terms of private schooling. Looking at data from 1977 to 1986, they argued that there was a greater orientation towards the private consumption of schooling in the South of England than in the North, with higher private school participation across the Southern regions. Moreover, they argued that this may have inter-generational effects, with privately schooled parents in the South more likely to send their children private (Bradford and Burdett, 1990: 47). There is another set of evidence which suggests that choice of private schooling may now be related to regional differences in the economic resources and cultural preferences of the British middle classes.
On the eve of the crisis, the ISC (2006) commissioned a report which collected the postcodes of 345,000 students in independent schools in 2005-06 and matched them to their ACORN geo-demographic classification. Geodemographic classifications are socio-economic typologies of small areas, generally post-codes, which are produced using census and market survey data (See here for a detailed description: CACI, 2007). In figure 3, we can see that London and the South-East with Scotland have a much larger proportion of students from the ‘Urban Prosperity’ category. These are the highest educated grouping and probably form those professional middle classes who, in London, live in gentrifying inner-city neighbourhoods and often prefer to avoid local state schools (Butler and Robson, 2003). In contrast, the North of England, like Wales, has a much smaller proportion drawn from this category and a larger grouping from the Comfortably Off, Moderate Means and Hard Pressed categories than in London/South-East or Scotland.
Viewed alongside the breakdown of each ACORN group (CACI, 2007: 11-15), this suggests an urban professional middle class distinctive to private sector participation in and around London and Scottish cities (Edinburgh in particular has a large private sector). Outside of Scotland and the South-East, private school intakes have higher participation from the high-income, ‘Wealthy Achiever’ category whilst the lower three categories are also larger. In the case of the ‘Comfortably Off’ and ‘Moderate Means’ categories, they have lower salaries than ‘Wealthy Achievers’, and are substantially less likely to hold a degree than the ‘Urban Prosperity’ group. Though it cannot be proven here, it seems quite plausible that the Comfortably Off and Moderate Means categories may have been most severely hit by the financial crisis, and could be behind the drop-off in independent school numbers in the North of England.
This is only a tentative hypothesis and this data has its limits. Nevertheless, it provides a tantalising glimpse of distinctive patterns of behaviour towards independent schooling which are specific to place and social class. For cities like Leeds, Liverpool or Sheffield, the independent sector is dramatically smaller than in London and its hinterland. Opting to colonize a particular school, probably in an affluent suburb, is a more financially viable strategy in a period of low wage growth and stagnation in the public sector. This strategy probably also reflects the state education of the welfare professionals who often dominate the middle class in Northern provincial cities with lower private-sector employment.
Between 1984 and 2014 the North-South division over independent schooling appears, in absolute terms, to have become entrenched. This division seems to be accelerating since the 2007-08 crisis. Viewed in conjunction with geodemographic data from the eve of the crisis, divergent regional trends in private schooling suggest how differently the crisis and the ‘recovery’ have been experienced by different class fractions across the country. This is not simply a matter of the entrenchment of school-type divisions. It reflects the deep divisions in regional wealth after thirty years of Thatcherite economic development and welfare reform. These deepening regional disparities have, over the past 30 years, created different cultures of class and place which feed into the education system.
The North-South divide over private schooling also reflects the fragility and geographical limits to the current model of British economic development. Whilst Thatcher aimed to encourage the growth of the private schooling, neoliberal economic policies concentrated growth in the South-East, almost certainly contributing to the entrenchment of geographic differences in private schooling. Whilst an urban professional middle class in London can still afford to use the private sector, the post-crisis vulnerability of the private sector in Northern cities underlines a different class trajectory. Perhaps increasingly, the provincial Northern middle classes are opting to negotiate and manipulate the state sector to ensure the reproduction of social advantage for their children. All of this takes place within a nested regional hierarchy of class and schooling with schools in the South-East frequently sending the largest proportions of students to elite universities. The North-South divide in private schooling ultimately reflects the inequalities, anxieties and insecurities of a society riven by geographical and social divisions of class. Continued bloated growth of London and the South-East may well support further growth in the independent sector. What we need to ask ourselves is whether we really want this educational inequality for children within those regions and within the country as a whole?
 The North constituted 18% of total private school intake in 1984 which fell to 14% in 2014.
Bradford M and Burdett F. (1989) Spatial polarisation of private education in England. Area: 47-57.
Bradford MG and Burdett F. (1990) The Geography of the Changes in the Consumption Cleavage between State and Private Education in England at the primary and secondary levels. Espace, populations, sociétés 8: 33-48.
Butler T and Robson G. (2003) London calling: the middle classes and the re-making of inner London, Oxford: Berg Publishers.
CACI. (2007) ACORN the smarter consumer classification: User guide. London: CACI.
Independent Schools Council. (1984) Annual Census 1984. London: Independent Schools Council.
Independent Schools Council. (2006) Levels of social diversity in the independent schools sector. London: Independent Schools Council.
Independent Schools Council. (2014) Annual Census 2014. London: Independent Schools Council.
Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. (1981) Census: Aggregate data (England and Wales) [computer file]. UK Data Service Census Support. Downloaded from: http://casweb.mimas.ac.uk. This information is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence [http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/2].