From the Editor - Struggling independents can benefit state sector

12th October 2012 at 01:00

Independent schools are in trouble. Outside London and the South East, increasing numbers are finding it tough to be academically selective while attracting enough fee-paying pupils to remain viable (see pages 8-9). A few have thrown in the towel, succumbed to the embrace of the state and become non-selective academies. Others have lowered their entry criteria to accept pupils whom they say they "wouldn't have touched with a bargepole previously", becoming in effect posh comprehensives.

It is difficult for some to feel their pain. Distressed toffs are hardly the nation's favourite charity. When top independent schools recently threatened to boycott universities that aimed to admit more state school pupils, sympathy was in short supply. Few things are as unattractive, or as counterproductive, as the privileged bleating about unfairness.

But it's equally foolish, and just as counterproductive, to indulge in class Schadenfreude. Most independents are bloody good schools. That excellence should be preserved, not wasted. No one benefits if a good school goes to the wall, and academy conversion saves them for the benefit of the whole community. It's a pity that more needy schools haven't taken the state's shilling; it must beat scrabbling around for the few remaining pupils with credit-worthy parents.

In fact, it's disappointing that most independents have sought meaningful ties with state schools only when faced with financial ruin or when their charitable status has been called into question. Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, and a few other independent heads are notable exceptions. They see academy sponsorship as central to their original social mission, not an adjunct to it.

Their refusenik colleagues point out that they are involved with other types of partnerships with state schools, and that they often lack managerial capacity or parental and governor support to commit to an academy. Those may be understandable reasons, but they are fast becoming unsustainable excuses. When senior politicians in the Conservative and Labour parties are urging independents to get stuck in and do a bit more heavy lifting, is it really wise to ignore them?

Fifty years ago, scores of the best grammars fled forced comprehensive conversion for the safety of independent status, to the immeasurable benefit of a public school system that had grown academically flaccid. Now a state sector that enjoys far greater independence deserves a return boost.

The same arguments apply to the country's remaining state grammars. Contrary to Graham Brady's article in last week's TES, they do nothing for social mobility and precious little for the wider educational community. Most, however, have excellent academic credentials. Good grammars - and not all of them are good - should be encouraged to open academies or to partner existing non-selective schools. They could become, in effect, a single school community with different academic streams that allowed pupils to move between them as required.

The academy programme was designed to tackle the problem of perennially failing comprehensives. Who could have predicted that it would also provide a way out for privileged schools that were financially unviable, or that had unaccountably mislaid their mission statements?

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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