Independent schools and support for state schools
The Government wants the independent sector to support Academies
But the mood music needs changing
A leading think tank hosted a lunch seminar this week on the developing relationship between independent schools and state schools against the backdrop of David Cameron’s recent very public encouragement for independent schools to support state schools through the academies scheme . Indeed there was a Downing street meeting recently on this very issue. Lord Adonis the architect of the academies scheme has long championed greater support from the independent sector for the academies scheme and used emotive language to get the point across-referencing the Berlin Wall, apartheid and so on. He even claims that independent schools have a moral obligation to offer such support. Adonis in a 2011 speech said ” Successful private schools ought to be prominent among the sponsors for the next wave of academies. Everything about academies is in the DNA of the successful private school: independence, excellence, innovation, social mission. And the benefit is not only to the wider community, it is also to the private schools themselves, whose mission is enlarged, whose relative isolation is ended, and whose social engagement, beyond the families of the better-off, is transformed.”
Given that the seminar operated under Chatham house rules I cannot give the source of the following comments and observations but the seminar attracted some leading heads from both independent schools and state schools, including Academies .
What is clear is that there are divisions in the independent sector over what, if anything, to do to support the state sector. Many schools already have extensive links with neighbouring state schools and around thirty independent schools provide some form of support for an Academy. What has caused resentment is the hectoring tone of politicians telling independent schools and the governors and trustees what to do. It is after all their decision as to how they will deliver public benefit. Support for Academies is certainly one option but there are a range of others –bursaries, specialist teaching support, access to equipment and facilities, advice on governance, curriculum advice and support , exam method, summer schools, pupil swaps, community support etc. The feeling was that the tone of the debate and perceived hostility from most political quarters towards the independent sector hardly establishes a context within which a constructive debate can take place, rather it encourages a siege mentality (particularly given the additional antics of the Charity Commission.) One point rammed home at the meeting was that one of the key reasons for the independent sectors success was its independence, and , specifically, independent governance. So called ‘ autonomous’ and ‘ free schools’ are not actually free in the same way as independent schools are and are still subject to significant bureaucratic restrictions , constraints and stipulations in their funding agreements. However, it was also pointed out that governance was a key area where independent schools really might help ‘autonomous ‘ state schools-ie how to use their autonomy effectively and what it could mean in practice so harnessing the aspirational ethos of the independent sector . There could also be more exchanges between governing boards, so independents have state school Heads on their governing bodies and vice-versa.
But it was also clear that most independent schools are keen to have greater meaningful contact with state schools and there can be demonstrable shared benefits from such contacts. Every independent school that has an arrangement with an Academy agreed that this relationship brought mutual benefits. And state schools can offer expertise and know- how in particular areas-not least in adapting to big resource challenges, encouraging leadership at every level-adding value and getting the best out of challenging pupils and so on. Indeed, one independent Head said that much of the really innovative thinking going on was happening in the state sector, suggesting perhaps, some complacency in the independent sector
There seemed to be agreement that the real problem with our education system is not the fact that a relatively small percentage of pupils are educated privately but in the long tail of significant underachievers in the state sector, ie the bottom 20-25% cohort. They are the big challenge and a drag on the system and there seems to be an assumption that Academies are the answer to addressing this problem, although evidence is not yet clear on this.
It was also remarked that rather too much is expected of the independent sector based on wrong assumptions. It educates just 7% of the school population and most schools operate on tight margins, with small surpluses. Large endowments are limited to a few. So the idea of supporting an academy just on practical grounds with limited resources is daunting and hard to sell to fee paying parents. There was a suggestion that those organisations responsible for representing the sector ISC,HMC etc might provide centralised support to schools wanting to get involved with Academies but it is clear that thinking in this area is undeveloped and these organisations have ,as yet, shown no indication that they would want to get involved. (joint approaches and action from these bodies is rare).
It was agreed ,though, that the aim for any academy engagement must be for it to be cash neutral. You cant ask hard pressed fee paying parents to fork out additional money to support engagement with the state sector, whatever its perceived merits. Raise funds separately so that the support operation is ring- fenced. And ,of course, don’t rule out pro-bono support because, it was agreed, some of the simplest most straightforward advice can pay the biggest dividends in return.
My view is that most independent schools want to knock down perceived barriers between the sectors and agree that there are mutual benefits at stake but this is a view that is not always reciprocated in the state sector. Support for Academies is certainly one mutually rewarding route and maximises public benefit in a way that bursaries clearly don’t. (indeed by removing the brightest from a state school you can damage that school) But Academy engagement carries some risks, reputational and otherwise, and is by no means the only way that schools can fulfil their public benefit requirement. Academy engagement will suit some schools but not others. If the government seriously wants more independent schools involved it should help them more in practical ways, for example by providing a matchmaking service, rather than hectoring them claiming that there is a moral imperative involved, which is entirely counter-productive and just bad politics.