Judging from the newspaper reactions, the Labour Party’s plan to abolish private schools touches a nerve in the English psyche. It is seemingly more difficult for people to imagine the nationalisation of private schools than the nationalisation of hospitals, railways or water suppliers.
The Labour Party has not as yet spelled out the detail of how this would be done or achieved. The phrase “integration into the state sector” has been used. Presumably this means that independent schools would not be closed but would rather be nationalised. They would convert to the status of a state school either as an academy (although these are perhaps to be abolished also) or as a local-authority maintained school.
I think our own experience may enlighten those who wonder how such a policy could be executed.
After 172 years as an independent school, we converted from an HMC fee-paying school to a state-funded academy. We needed to work hard to persuade Michael Gove, then education secretary, that it was a good idea. He joked at the time that we were unique in asking a Tory to nationalise our industry.
Fortunately for the people of Liverpool, and its young people especially, he supported the idea.
Integration by choice
Six years later, we are the most oversubscribed school in the region. Our transition to state-school status has been deemed a success by Ofsted (although they are apparently to be abolished also), the local authority, pupils, staff and parents.
“Nationalising” and “privatising” schools has been done before. There has been substantial movement between the state and independent sectors throughout the period after the 1944 Butler Act. And we are aware of more than 20 independent schools that have actively and by choice “integrated into the state sector” since 2002.
In our case, the move meant setting up an academy trust, which would govern the school within the framework of a funding agreement. The trust also has a 125-year lease over the school’s physical assets. If its governors failed to satisfy the government, they could be replaced.
The admissions policy of the school changed completely. Like all state schools with comprehensive intake, we needed to prioritise looked-after children, previously looked-after children and children with education, health and care plans. We also decided to give some priority to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who wanted to join us.
One consequence was that, instead of open days where 100 people visited, we now have open days where 2,000 people visit. The percentage of pupils from a minority background has increased from 5 per cent to 25 per cent.
Religious and socioeconomic diversity has increased. The percentage of pupils receiving pupil premium went from 2 per cent to 15 per cent, and is rising every year.
While academic results have not changed, we have rebuilt our curriculum, because – at both extremes of the academic-ability spectrum – we have more pupils. In short, we have many more very able and very challenged learners.
School size and class sizes changed. We used to be a middle-sized independent school of 725 pupils. We are now a school of 1,500 pupils. The staff-to-pupil ratio went from 1:11 to the current 1:17.
There was substantial investment, with government funding the creation of new facilities, including new middle-school and pre-prep buildings.
Trains don't fly
Many things that had been implicit in our curriculum, such as extensive participation in CCF, sport and the arts, needed to be made explicit and explained, not as part of what the school offered as options, but as parts of the mandatory curriculum. One challenge which we focus on is raising the levels of participation of disadvantaged pupils in these activities.
But the most fundamental change was in our own understanding of our moral purpose, our mission. We did and do together whatever it takes to change our school into a machine for the destruction of the effects of disadvantage. We cheer and celebrate most when the most vulnerable in our school do well.
There is simply much more emphasis on progress for all than anything else. In that way, success for us looks different than it did when we were a fee-paying independent school.
I wish we could boast about how difficult it was to make the transition between an HMC independent school and a state school. But it was not difficult. It required only one thing: namely that we keenly wanted to be a state school, because it would enable us to better fulfil our mission and moral purpose.
From a purely technical perspective – legal challenges and human-rights law aside – many independent schools would be terrible state schools.
The interest in and knowledge of the issues which confront many young learners in the country is insufficiently developed in many independent schools. Making these institutions state schools would be like nationalising the railways and them telling them they must become airlines. Trains don’t fly well.
Hans Van Mourik Broekman is the principal of Liverpool College