As the head of an independent school, there is now a weary acceptance that, as political easy wins go, we are the equivalent of Manchester United against Leyton Orient (with apologies to my beloved club). It is so easy for politicians and commentators to gain political ground by bashing the sector. Make a comment about independent schools and you will quickly gain the support of a small army, all applauding your stand.
This week, it was the turn of Robert Halfon MP to rage against us, demanding that a levy be brought in for private schools saying that “the current social contract between the government and independent schools is clearly not working”. Deep breath.
Then in a response to the news that Westminster is setting up schools in China, Lord Adonis opined that this shows how little our “public” schools are interacting with their own country: “They should be in Bradford, not Beijing.” Completely ignoring the Westminster Harris Academy set up just down the road offering an outstanding education to the very same children Mr Halfon and Lord Adonis wish us to support.
Lord Adonis will undoubtedly have huge support for his statement. Well, you would if you have the impression that the independent sector has retreated behind its mother of pearl gates and is gleefully hoovering foreign money into its coffers for new sports centres. But the reality is so very different.
It is certainly true to say that in the eighties and nineties, the independent sector had completely lost sight of its social responsibilities. Support was focused inward and the schools made very little impact nationally or locally. But then, a new generation of socially responsible heads began an important process that has resulted in the most significant shift in the independent sector in many decades.
But you would never know it. In the noughties, it started with the joint use of playing fields and swimming pools. School CCFs started to run joint operations and there were the beginnings of genuine partnerships. These were the areas Sir Michael Wilshaw memorably described as “crumbs from the table”. Nevertheless, this seemed to spark something of a quiet revolution and the result is that independent schools are now very much part of the solution to social mobility rather than part of the problem.
So back to Lord Adonis’ admonishment of Westminster School. Well, Wellington College is in the same boat. We have opened international schools in China too. The money raised is being used for widening access to the College. We have already removed all financial remission from scholarships and made every award a means-tested bursary. The money from our international operations will help us reach our ten-year target of quadrupling the number of students at Wellington on means-tested bursary support. In addition, we have set a target of raising £40 million by 2027 to create an endowment for widening access.
We also sponsor three state academies and run a thriving independent/state school partnership of twenty schools which ensures that pupils from the local area and further afield receive help and support in, among other areas, Oxbridge and medical school interviews. We run a summer school for students from local state schools aimed at raising aspiration and offering careers advice, and we are a “Teaching School” acting as a hub for staff training across the county. Ask those schools, Mr Halfon, if the social contract isn’t working.
Wellington College is by no means the only independent school with a similar approach. Look at the exceptional work being done by Eton, Caterham, Highgate and others in setting up the London Academy of Excellence – now one of the country’s top performing state schools. The notion of independent schools merrily carrying on their education of the elite without a care for others is desperately outdated.
There is no expectation of praise – that’s not the point – but I do think the public deserves to know the truth and maybe a few days respite from the independent school bashing that gives politicians such easy publicity.
Julian Thomas is the master of Wellington College. He tweets at @Welly_Master.