English public schools plan to chum up with struggling primaries
The often touchy relationship between the state and independent sectors was once characterised by seemingly ineradicable demarcation lines. But they are about to become a good deal closer after a group of well-known independent schools in England signalled their intention to sponsor struggling primaries.
The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), which represents the likes of Eton and Harrow, has set up a Primary School Academy Group to enable some of the country's top independents to sponsor underperforming primaries, rather than the well- trodden route of taking on secondaries.
The move comes as pressure mounts from Number 10 and Education Secretary Michael Gove, who are both determined to see more independent schools sponsoring primary and secondary academies in a bid to raise standards.
Such is Prime Minister David Cameron's belief in the power of private schools to improve academies, he held an hour-long summit at Downing Street with heads from the country's leading independents to convince them to sponsor academies.
But David Levin, headmaster of the City of London School and chair of the new HMC group, has a slightly different take, arguing that independent schools will have the biggest impact on state schools via the primary sector.
"It is our belief that the best way to tackle social mobility would be to try to help struggling primary schools," he said. "The educational gap between the rich and poor widens particularly between the ages of nine and 10."
Mr Levin has written to all members of the HMC to urge them to consider sponsoring a primary school alongside a business or charity.
"In our view, primary schools offer the means to make a really big difference to social mobility and close that gap," he added. "The gap isn't as great in primary schools, in-roads are much simpler and easier to achieve. Things like the love of learning, interest in reading, the whole area of nurture and competitive sport can be instilled more easily at that age."
Mr Levin also attended the meeting with Mr Cameron earlier this month, where 10 heads of leading independent schools - including Eton, Harrow and Radley - discussed the possibility of establishing formal partnerships with state schools. Among those present were former Labour schools minister Lord Adonis and new HMC general secretary William Richardson.
Mr Richardson said the big public schools would have to be convinced that attempts to get them to back academies would be worthwhile.
"The Coalition is formally saying: `We wish to encourage you to actively work with state schools.' There isn't a sense that this is anything other than an appeal to get involved, but it has to be mutually beneficial."
Independent schools in England are already looking to work more closely with their peers in the state system, with many schools sharing teachers and sporting facilities.
Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) chief executive David Hanson, who attended the meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, admitted more reforms were needed.
"There needs to be a closer working relationship between the public and private sector. There has been a Berlin wall between the two in the past," he said.
"This meeting was about trying to move from the passionate philanthropy of a few to the active engagement of the many."
But Mr Hanson warned the Government that it needed to get rid of the red tape surrounding the academies programme for it to be attractive to independents.