Tear down the wall
Many independent schools remain reluctant to help out with the academy programme, says Patrick Watson in Education Investor magazine
Britain has not one school system, but two, existing in parallel, hardly ever coming into contact. This is worrying some of our leading educationalists. Lord Adonis, the architect of the academies scheme, for example, used a conference at Brighton College this month to remind private schools heads that he wanted the “Berlin Wall” separating them from the state system to be torn down. Dr Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, meanwhile, talks about the “apartheid” that characterises our schools, and the widening performance gap between the independent and maintained sectors.
Those who support closer links between the two sectors use a number of arguments to make their case. Some argue that these schools are now so exclusive they are actively damaging to their students, because they see so little of the rest of society. Others say that, as charities, independent schools have a moral obligation to serve the many, rather than the few. Adonis argues that most major private schools, originally established as charities for the education of the poor and under-privileged, have in practice “entirely divorced themselves from these groups” over the last century.
His solution is that private schools should get involved with the running of academies, to bring their talents to bear in the state system. Seldon, meanwhile, has called on those organisations that represent private schools to actively broker linkages between private schools and academies. He put his money where his mouth was by establishing the Wellington academy in Tidworth. A few other private schools – Dulwich, Eton, Uppingham, et al. – have heeded this advice. So far, though, most private schools have ignored the call.
To explain why, you need to understand independent schools. They jealously guard and treasure their independence, and are deeply suspicious of any political intervention that looks like it could threaten it. They are attacked so often, and given so little credit by politicians, that their mind-set is defensive. And they believe that it’s for their own management teams to decide – not only how to run the schools, but also how they should deliver the ‘public benefit’ that justifies their charitable status.
Schools are also sensitive to the fact that many parents are struggling to pay the school fees. They thus feel a pressing duty to use this income exclusively for the benefit of their existing pupils. Sponsoring an academy, though, would mean redirecting resources and staff time over an extended period. There’s reputational risk involved, too: some academies will fail. And private schools, most of whom have little experience of dealing with disadvantaged pupils with little parent support, will be taken out of their comfort zone. So, many think, why risk your reputation and the collateral damage that might follow?
Besides, independent schools can and do provide help to state pupils in many different ways. In 2012 the Independent Schools Council reported that over 90% of its members – more than 1,100 schools – were involved with some form of partnership activity. For some that meant academy sponsorship – but for others it meant offering state pupils access to specific lessons, activities, or facilities; helping prepare them for entry to higher education; seconding teaching staff to maintained schools to teach specialist subjects; and so on. Indeed, the Independent State School Partnership Forum now meets three times a year, to consider how further co-operation can be encouraged.
But it is true, nonetheless, that some schools are better than others at developing such links, and in delivering public benefit. We are told that the Charity Commission will come down hard on those schools that are seen to be ‘tokenistic’. It is hard to argue that a handful of bursaries deliver meaningful public benefit – and it is an uncomfortable truth that cherry-picking the best pupils from the state system harms the schools they leave or eschew. The aim, surely, must be to maximise public benefit and deliver it at scale.
This, then, is one key justification for academy support. Here is another. Education is about making connections and preparing pupils for the real world. How do you give a child a truly rounded education, if you isolate them from the mainstream and, in particular, from the most disadvantaged in society?
In any case, collaboration between schools is now widely seen by experts as the best means to deliver systemic improvement. And, of course, it isn’t a one-way street. Many progressive ideas in education and great teaching are in evidence in the state system, in those schools where socio-economic disadvantage is not seen as an excuse for poor performance and where the concept of adding value is understood.
And, whisper it soft, but some in the independent sector look to be more than a little complacent when it comes to adding value and leadership. For reluctant independent schools, it could be time for a re-think.
Article published in Education Investor June Vol 5 2013