There’s something in the air.
Driven by the sense that this new populist Boris Johnson government could be keener to demand a pound of flesh from independent schools than its Home Counties-based Conservative predecessors, there is a definite sense that the sector needs to reach a new settlement with the governing classes.
Having experienced a near-existential threat from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, private schools are trying to work out how to protect their charitable status and avoid the threat of VAT on their fees or hikes to their business rates.
They know Johnson’s government is likely to demand more from them if the status quo is to be maintained.
Ensuring that their charitable work genuinely and meaningfully stretches beyond the wealthy families who pay their fees is the name of the game.
Independent school partnerships
While the sector will undoubtedly come under pressure to open admissions to a much wider field of potential students – 100 per cent bursary provision varies hugely – there are many senior figures in independent education keen to push partnerships with state schools as the preferred solution.
The problem with these initiatives is that it is too easy to lazily stereotype them as the "toffs" lending out their swimming pools to the poor state-school kids.
Most of the partnerships that exist are much deeper and more meaningful than that, but perception is everything. It is too easy to characterise this kind of work as at best patronising and at worst “crumbs from the table” (copyright Michael Wilshaw).
Another big problem is that these days most independents would rather chop off a limb than be seen as trying to tell their colleagues in comprehensives how to do their job.
They are right, of course: the Blairite (and Mayite) idea that the big public schools had some kind of “educational DNA”, and that, if only they could share it with mainstream teachers, it would be lead to a transformation in outcomes, is now thankfully gathering dust.
Super-selective sixth forms
However, it is within the wider area of partnership work that the larger public schools think they might have identified one solution that could genuinely add value to the work of state schools and is sufficiently grandstanding to get ministers off their backs.
It is the idea of helping to open, run and staff a new generation of standalone super-selective state sixth-forms.
In 2018, I wrote about how these schools were a very neat political fit for the government of the time. I explained how these post-16 schools would allow ministers (who were still reeling from Theresa May’s botched election) to promote the idea of selective education (without trying to open new grammar schools) and point to how they were creating social-mobility “ladders” for the brightest.
Two years on, there are still not many of them. But Harris Westminster, the two London Academies of Excellence and the specialist maths sixth-forms (one in the capital, and one in Exeter) are getting great results.
And now they are more politically expedient than ever. This is for several reasons.
Firstly, chief special adviser Dominic Cummings occupies a position of supreme power in Downing Street, and he loves them: he was the brains behind the maths schools. (See more on what he calls Kolmogorov Schools, and why he backs them, on his now-famous blog.)
Secondly, the few existing examples of this new school type, whether you approve of them or not, are getting exceptional results with often poor kids.
Thirdly, the Boris Johnson administration is keen to interrogate the make-up of post-16 education. The focus is on FE and skills in a post-Brexit Britain, but it does include a slight obsession (partly driven by Cummings and those around him) with making sure that the education system looks after “the brightest”.
Fourthly, many in the Brexit project are keen grammar-school enthusiasts (remember Nick Timothy?) and while the more liberal Johnsonian Tories will probably resist the widespread return of the 11-plus, these new sixth-forms are highly selective and can therefore be seen as a halfway house.
A halfway house to grammar schools
Lastly (and related), both Harris Westminster and the London Academies of Excellence are sponsored and supported by large public schools (full disclosure: two of the winners at the Tes Independent School Awards earlier this month were celebrated for their work in this space).
They provide money, teachers, and sometimes classrooms to help their colleagues make a success of these schools.
These are much neater tie-ups than when well-known public schools were persuaded to try their hands (often disastrously) at running neighbouring comprehensives – after all, they do know a thing or two about elitist education.
As explained above, HMC schools are now (or should be) falling over themselves to mimic these projects. Indeed, it’s just the kind of stuff that might silence their political critics, especially those on the government benches.
Whether you like the idea of them or not, these are settings in which big independent schools can lend real expertise, and which are rather meatier than the loan of the Second XI’s astroturf (but only when they’re on an away fixture).
Sorry, I know that was mean.