Independent schools are getting a media kicking again. What sparked the feeding frenzy this time round was the publication of a report by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission. Entitled Elitist Britain, it studied the school and university backgrounds of 5,000 high achievers and concluded that, in this country, "power rests with a narrow section of the population – the 7 per cent who attend private schools and the 1 per cent who graduate from Oxford and Cambridge".
Sutton Trust founder Sir Peter Lampl appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday to discuss the implications for social mobility and for the life chances of less advantaged young people. Sir Peter’s motivation is neatly summarised in his Wikipedia entry: “On his return from America, Lampl was appalled to discover that nowadays ‘a kid like me had little chance of making it to Oxbridge’, noting that his old grammar school was now "all fee-paying" and his old Oxford college ‘used to have lots of ordinary Welsh kids, but they're not coming through any more.’”
Sir Peter doesn’t seek to abolish private schools, rather to share and replicate their strengths. On the radio, he stressed that what pupils receive from independent schooling goes beyond good exam results: its rich extra-curricular, sporting and cultural programmes also teach children, he said, “the vital social skills: articulacy, confidence, ambition”. Those should be available to all state school pupils, too.
Eton of the East End
Indeed they should, and in one state school they certainly are – thanks to a group of independent schools. With Sir Peter on Radio 4 was Scott Baker, head of the London Academy of Excellence (LAE), the sixth-form college in Stratford nicknamed the Eton of the East End by the press: it gets more teenagers into Oxbridge than most independents, even some of its high-powered sponsor institutions – among them, Eton, Brighton College and Highgate School.
LAE works its miracle in a tough area rife with gangs and drugs, seeking out students from the poorest backgrounds. It mirrors an independent-school model, its excellent specialist teaching (some provided by the partner schools) complemented by a rich co-curricular programme.
There’s one aspect some might dislike about LAE: it’s academically selective. Ambitious 16-year-olds can’t just walk in there: they must prove their intellectual mettle and win a place against competition.
LAE’s curriculum is, according to its website, “academically rigorous and challenging”. Not every student will cope with its demands, so applicants for places must achieve at least five 9-7 GCSE grades (A*-A in unreformed subjects), grade 6 or above in maths and English, and at least a GCSE 7 grade in subjects they wish to study at A level. That steep threshold is tougher than all but the top academic end of the independent sector: most private schools would generally require five or six 5-6 GCSE grades (C in old money), or not stipulate at all.
Beyond the South East
So will we see the successful LAE model emulated beyond the relatively prosperous South East, in the cities of the North, on the coastal fringes, in remote rural areas? Not without some creative thinking, perhaps.
LAE’s location allows it to select an academic elite from among the capital’s least advantaged, and help them to fly. In other areas with less density of population, entirely new, free-standing selective sixth-forms might not be feasible. But government could work with and expand established independent sixth-forms, creating and funding ground-breaking new provision in real two-way partnership with the (not-for-profit) independent sector.
The sector has declared itself ready to explore such ideas. But, far from pursuing it, government is eroding even LAE’s success. With post-16 funding slashed by 20 per cent since 2013, Scott Baker says LAE cannot maintain its successful model. Last week’s Sunday Times reported that the sponsor schools are asking their parents to donate £3,000 to bridge the gap. Generously, some are responding even when shelling out £40k in boarding fees for their own child. Nonetheless, if sufficient donors aren’t forthcoming (it’s a huge ask), I can’t see any government increasing per-pupil funding by £3,000 in a hurry.
The very success of the London Academy of Excellence throws down a challenge to government. Will it rise to it and extend the model across the country? Or will it succumb to its own soft bigotry, refuse to increase funding, decline to engage fully with the independent sector – and allow this spectacularly successful socio-educational experiment slowly to wither away?
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford