'Federations to end state-private gulf'

5th December 2008 at 00:00
Partner schools will share expertise, resources and a common sense of belonging, says think tank expert

Schools will eventually be classed not by whether they are state or independently funded, but by which federation they belong to, a leading policy analyst predicts.

Sam Freedman, research director of the education unit at the Policy Exchange think tank (pictured), believes that the future of English education will lie in multi-school partnerships, where state and private schools are united through a common sense of belonging.

Mr Freedman told the Westminster Education Forum in London that such federations would ensure private and state schools worked together, sharing expertise and resources.

He pointed to similar, existing federations, such as the Skinners' Company and the Haberdashers' Company schools, where the schools share an allegiance to a supporting organisation. The Skinners' group of schools - three for boys and one for girls - includes the fee-paying Tonbridge School and the state-funded Skinners' School in Tunbridge Wells, both in Kent.

"The more you get groups running federations, the less it will mean to be a state school or an independent school," Mr Freedman said.

"Non-structural relationships between schools are inherently unstable because they are dependent on personal relationships, often a relationship between two heads. But they work much better if there is a structural relationship."

He suggested that existing groups of state secondaries, such as Edison schools, could expand to include private schools. And private groups, such as Cognita, could run state academies. This would make the exchange of experience and resources part of a school's day-to-day functions. And, Mr Freedman added, it would overcome some of the existing obstacles to private-state partnerships.

"In our existing system, all schools compete against each other," he said. "But there is an inherent contradiction in partnering another school when you are in competition.

"When independent schools are competing for fee-paying parents, there will be a problem if the state school becomes too desirable."

In a federation system, however, the same governing body would ultimately benefit, he argued.

The importance of successful state-private partnerships was also highlighted by a number of other speakers at the conference.

David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, said: "It's not just about the Etons and Harrows. There are lots of small independent schools. Some are strong in special educational needs, some in other areas.

"The independent sector can offer opportunities. But unless those opportunities are taken up, then you will have problems in any partnership."

Anthony Seldon, master of independent Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire, said that such partnerships could help reduce the gulf between state and private schools.

"There's no more serious divide than the gulf between the sectors," he said. "That gulf entrenches existing social divides in society. Our most important resource, our human resource, is not optimised."

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