Prof John Ashton, who represents the country’s public health doctors, had said independent schools could form “reservoirs of disease” because they contained high numbers of middle-class children whose parents refused to have them vaccinated, as well as overseas pupils with an unknown immunisation record.
Dr Christopher Ray, the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, said the importance of vaccination had been undermined by an “ill-founded attack on independent education”.
Prof Ashton, who is soon to become president of the Faculty of Public Health, representing all public health doctors, was director of public health in Cumbria last September when there was an outbreak of mumps in Sedbergh School, one of Britain’s largest boarding schools, which infected 66 pupils. When doctors were attempting to manage the outbreak, they found that of those cases, 31 involved pupils who had not received the MMR jab — which protects against measles, mumps and rubella — or had only been partly vaccinated, or whose records could not be established.
In an article published by The Lancet on Friday, Prof Ashton suggested that the experience left him with concerns about a lack of coherent policy in the private-school sector regarding immunisation of children. But Dr Ray, who is High Master of Manchester Grammar School, said the picture painted by Prof Ashton of the independent school sector’s approach to health was “woefully inaccurate”.
He said independent schools had close links with the NHS, and their policies were highly regulated. “The inspectorate which closely monitors the policies and performance of schools in our highly regulated sector will be astonished to learn that independent schools have the autonomy to be the law unto themselves,” Dr Ray said.
Andrew Fleck, the headmaster of Sedbergh School, accused Prof Ashton of “peddling emotive opinions without regard for accuracy”. He said: “It is utterly without foundation to suggest that the school is cavalier in its management of pupil health or that boarding schools pose a risk to local communities.”