INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS-UNDER THE COSH-AGAIN

Sir Michael Wishaw said at a Sutton Trust conference recently   that independent schools should lose charitable status if they did not sponsor an academy. A bit harsh.

Having upset the FE sector, then heads of  Multi Academy Trusts  and now the independent sector one wonders who might be next in Sir Michaels cross hairs, as he heads towards the end of his term as chief inspector.

Most independent schools, of course, are modest in size and intake with few assets, so one assumes that Wilshaw is talking about the big ones with large endowment funds and big intakes. . If so, he should have made this a little clearer.

Of course its not up to  Wilshaw, nor indeed Alan Milburn ,who is now the social mobility guru,  to tell schools what they should be doing. Milburn is on record as saying he wants independent schools to lose their charitable status, so is hardly a disinterested adviser.   Its up to governors/trustees  of course  to decide how  they spend their money to fulfill their  charity purposes and deliver public benefit. Sponsoring an academy is a complex challenge which needs great expertise and resources that few independent schools actually  have. They normally  have to deal with largely compliant pupils who want to learn  ,with supportive parents,  sadly , unlike rather too many state schools.  State school teachers often  have to wrestle with daily challenges that would place many independent school teachers well out of their comfort zones.

There are significant reputational risks involved  with supporting an academy . So,  Heads and governors need to give serious consideration to these before making a decision on academy sponsorship.

Under Sir Anthony Seldon, Wellington College took on an academy near Tidworth. Sir Anthony did more than any other Head to persuade independent schools to support academies and to bridge the unacceptable divide between the independent and maintained sectors.  In this he had an ally in the form of Lord Adonis. Wellington College remains committed long term to its academy. But it hasn’t been easy.  Although the school now has a ‘Good’  Ofsted rating   it  has found the project challenging- starting strongly, dipping, then continuing on an improving trend (although exam results fail to capture the real transformation underway in the Wellington academy with the support of the mother school).  Dulwich College is another school to take on an academy but gave up, and with brutal candour admitted that  it was  not very good at it,despite being one of the top performers in the independent sector.

Eton College  sponsors Holyport College, a free school which opened  in 2014. Eton gave the new school money for an all-weather sports pitch, new furniture for its boarding houses, cast-off music technology equipment, a piano and a minibus — as well as providing   specialist teacher support. Bradfield College, sponsors nearby Theale Green School ‘ helping with  its  improvement plan. Yet results to date have been far from encouraging. Last year Ofsted inspectors judged Theale Green, ‘requiring improvement’.The London Academy of Excellence, though  a Stratford-based sixth-form college which is sponsored by a host of private schools including Eton, Brighton and Highgate, encouragingly , recently announced that eight of its pupils had been offered places at Oxbridge

If schools are to become more involved given the trajectory of government policy they would probably have to be part of a multi academy trust now which brings its own  particular challenges, for a singleton independent.

The fact is that schools that have charity status can satisfy the public benefit criteria in different ways.  Its not just about academy support, or indeed bursaries.

Around 97 per cent of all independent schools do engage in partnerships and many independent schools are engaged in major long-term projects to raise aspirations in their local community. It is clear to most in both sectors that collaboration between the state sector and the independent sector can have major mutual benefits and independent schools can be forces for good in terms of social mobility.

There are many  ways in which effective collaboration can take place. Some of the strongest and biggest schools have, of course singly or in partnership with others, sponsored academies. Many schools continue to grow their provision of means-tested Assisted Places. Almost all schools can do something in terms of partnership which can enrich the experience and raise the aspirations of pupils. There are facility shares, teacher swaps, help from specialist teachers, shared professional development, sports fixtures  art, music , joint theatre projects, joint research , masterclasses, Sunday schools,   shared cadet forces, holiday clubs, holiday revision  and so on.  There are now many flourishing independent state school partnerships, which are all well established and very successful, each offering a myriad of opportunities and benefits to all the schools concerned. The Department for Education is sufficiently  impressed with the effectiveness of these partnerships and it has committed £176,000 to nurturing new projects, awarding seed money to 18 schools to encourage them to set up new ways of working with local schools.

A big question remains though. If the most successful multi-academy trusts are very careful now about what schools they take on because of the reputational risks involved ,and they are experienced at running state schools,  one has to ask how many more private schools will want to risk their reputations by being associated with a state academy with less than outstanding exam results?   There are  clearly merits in  supporting academies and frankly it’s a much better option than awarding a few bursaries ,with much  less  return,  and with fewer beneficiaries   but there is as yet little evidence that the independent sector has grasped this baton and is  running  with it.  My guess is that with accelerated academisation there will be more academy support from the independent sector, but not much more.

Meanwhile, the sector will  continue to be attacked  from various quarters because it is seen as  a soft target. at a time when the politicians are wrestling, fairly ineffectively it has to be said ,  with promoting equity ,social justice and social mobility. Improvements in this area need a cross cutting  collaborative  strategy involving schools, FE colleges, Universities,  the third sector, employers,   the professions, careers advisers, parents et al.   One thing is for sure, displacement attacks on the private sector will not make this complex agenda any more easy to  deliver.

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