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‘Independent schools meddling in the state sector will only lead to farce and frustration’

Hans van Broekman, principal of Liverpool College, a former independent school-turned-state-funded academy, writes:

Tristram Hunt’s announcement of the introduction of a new mandatory “Schools Partnership Standard” by a future Labour government will be fiercely resisted by private schools and dolefully ignored by state schools.

As a former HMC head and the principal of a school that converted from fee-paying to academy status less than two years ago, I understand why.

When we became an academy, we made a Liverpool College education available to any child in the city, without regard to the ability to pay. This move has been welcomed by the people of Liverpool, who have made us the most oversubscribed school in the region. Academy status has reinvigorated our sense of mission and our moral purpose, while also presenting real challenges to our governors, leaders and teachers. It was the choice of our governors to make this transition. We were not compelled to take this radical step of changing our purpose and mission by any government mandate. Our transition has made an impact for children in Liverpool and we were supported in our transition by politicians from all political parties.

The record of private schools in this country of opening their doors to poor and vulnerable pupils is woeful when compared to the United States. Eton, which boasts of its award of £6 million (just over 10 per cent of turnover) annually in scholarships has had about five centuries to develop a fund to enrol more poor pupils, a purpose for which it was founded, and yet Philips Andover, a top United States boarding school, manages double that amount, more than $18 million, on similar turnover. 

The vast majority of bursaries in independent education are really discounted fees, provided to middle-class parents who can no longer afford to pay full fees. This lamentable record of failure to fulfil charitable objects by independent schools cries out for change and indeed action but I suspect the good intentions of the still nebulous “Schools Partnership Standard” will not deliver the change needed.

Private schools are right to resist this plan for the same reason that a woman should be allowed to resist forced marriage. Effective partnerships depend on mutual trust and interests and a government imposed partnership is unlikely to produce either. The vagueness of the requirements of the standard will lead to endless debate about what does and does not fulfil the requirements of the standard. The lack of clarity will be exploited by frustrated private schools and will make state schools feel like objects of reluctant charity, a degradation that no one should have to endure.

I am unconvinced as a new state-school head of the benefits to the state sector of these sorts of efforts by private schools, whether voluntary or government mandated. They presuppose an expertise in private schools, which I do not believe they have. The injection of teachers from highly academically selective schools into classrooms where half of pupils will not pass GCSEs will only lead to farce and frustration. State schools are further inspected according to a different framework, which private schools neither know nor care to know. The equal relationship Mr Hunt wants to promote between the sectors is undermined by the imposition of its mandatory nature on only one of the partners. He has not required state schools to engage. It is rather like forcing the boys at the school disco to dance with all the girls, even the ones they do not wish to dance with, and assuming the girls appreciate this gesture. In this sense, the entire policy only perpetuates the myth of private schools as having some sort of magical teaching ability which makes the weak strong and the blind see. I am not aware of any evidence which suggests that this is the case.

A more-effective policy might be to promote more independent schools becoming academies or providing vouchers to pupil premium pupils to independent schools, which would have to be matched by the schools to maintain their participation in the state-backed teacher pension scheme. The ambition and intentions of Mr Hunt are laudable, but direct access to private schools for pupils of poorer backgrounds will make a bigger difference than the partnership standard proposed. 

Related links:

Private schools could lose tax breaks under Labour

Top independent schools using charitable status to reduce parents tax bills

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