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‘Charity or not, our school values remain the same’

Independent schools wrestling with the prospect of having to form partnerships with maintained schools are debating the pros and cons of retaining charitable status

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Independent schools wrestling with the prospect of having to form partnerships with maintained schools are debating the pros and cons of retaining charitable status

The recent education Green Paper signals a renewal of the link between independent schools’ charitable status and schools’ commitment to working with the maintained sector. This goes back to Andrew Adonis’ proposal in 2007 that the independent sector should do more to implant its “educational DNA” into state sector schools. It is this theme that has been pursued with some enthusiasm in the Green Paper.

It is too early to tell how the initial statements about independent schools of a certain size being required to seek a partnership with a maintained school will become codified in the final directives. However, independent school governing bodies and headteachers are already examining the benefits that charitable status brings and at what a post-charitable status world might look like if the requirements of government threaten our independence and, more likely, cost too much.

My initial, gut reaction to the prime minister’s comments was to think that somehow a school like my own might suffer some kind of erosion of moral purpose if it gave up its charitable status, but let’s unpack that instinctive response and see whether it is logical.

First, what is moral purpose and should schools have it?

Moral purpose depends on being true to ourselves

Moral purpose’s currency has been associated with the work of Michael Fullan, of the University of Toronto. Tellingly, Fullan’s description of moral purpose was used by the former education secretary Michael Gove as the basis for his educational reforms. Fullan speaks of “moral purpose writ large”, which he explains as “principled behaviour connected to something greater than ourselves that relates to human and social development.”

Gove’s take on moral purpose reflects Fullan’s. In an article in The Spectator in 2014, he explains that he wants “every child to be able to go to a state school which excels, which nurtures their talents, which introduces them to the best that has been thought and written, which prepares them for the world of work and adult responsibility, which imbues them with the strength of character to withstand life’s adversities and treat other humans with courtesy and dignity, which gives them the chance to appreciate art and culture, to enjoy music and drama, to participate in sport and games, which nurtures intellectual curiosity and which provides a secure grounding in the practical skills the modern world requires.”

Such admirable aspirations for all state schools mirror school aims across the educational spectrum. So here are the aims of my school, Bedales:

* To develop inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought.

* To enable students’ talents to develop through doing and making.

* To foster individuality and encourage initiative, creativity and the appreciation of the beautiful.

* To enable students, former students, parents and staff to take pride in the community’s distinctiveness and to feel valued and nourished by the community.

* To foster students’ interest beyond the school: engaging with the local community, as well as developing a national and international awareness.

The school’s pursuit of its aims and the work that it has always done in engaging with the local and international community will continue, whether we have charitable status or not. The way we choose to engage with maintained sector schools will continue to be based on projects that suit my school and the needs of colleagues in the state sector. In recent years, these have ranged from a reading mentor scheme with Charter Academy in Portsmouth (our Year 12s with Charter’s Year 7s) through to co-running our Liberating Leaders conference with King Edward VI School, in Bury St Edmund’s, and TES. Longstanding relationships that enable our theatre spaces to be used by the Petersfield Youth Theatre and our swimming pool by Steep Primary School will, of course, persist.

Layer of insulation

I imagine that sharing our unusual outdoor work facilities (where you can do anything from blacksmithing to chutney-making) with an increasing number of local schools, as well as effectively deploying our beautiful new art and design building, will be part of the next stage of our partnerships.

Our local maintained schools – the Petersfield School and Bohunt – are part of a thriving academy trust. They have their own support structures and international links. To assume that they would want to partner with us would be the worst kind of patronising behaviour.

Without, I hope, sounding too sanctimonious, my school’s sense of moral purpose depends on being true to ourselves and following our aims. Yes, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of continuing to be a charity because it provides some small layer of insulation against the accusation that a school like Bedales, which is a boarding school charging high fees, is merely another part of an economy serving the needs of the wealthy.

Although there are other models of governance that demonstrate that no money can go out of a school and that all its resources are committed to fulfilling its aims, I – and, I suspect, most of my independent school colleagues, are happier at the thought of our institution being a charity, with the esteem that being a charitable organisation has in the public consciousness.

So, having explored the logic of my gut reaction, I have concluded that moral purpose can and should exist outside charitable status, and we could continue with our educational mission, but it would be a deeply regrettable step to have to take.

Keith Budge is headmaster of Bedales School in Hampshire

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