Get out of your `comfort zone', state school leaders told

28th August 2015 at 01:00
Leading head urges them to join the private sector - as governors

State school leaders should become governors of private schools, an influential headteacher from the independent sector has suggested.

Richard Harman, chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and headteacher of Uppingham School in Rutland, believes that this approach could support the sharing of ideas across the two sectors.

"You always learn from something that is different from your own comfort zone," he told TES. "You learn how your own practice can be informed by how another school in different circumstances would do something. That's very enriching."

Mr Harman's idea is the latest in a long line of attempts to breach what has been described as a "Berlin Wall" between the state and independent school systems.

The sponsorship of academies by some leading independent schools has already led to private school leaders sitting on the governing bodies of state schools.

Now Mr Harman is suggesting that this cross-fertilisation could work in the opposite direction. His idea has won the backing of the National Governors' Association (NGA) and United Learning, which runs schools in both sectors.

Gillian Allcroft, policy manager at the NGA, said: "Cooperation between sectors can help to improve governance, by sharing good practice and increasing the diversity of views and experience on governing boards.

"While the regulatory framework across sectors may be different, the principles of good governance are the same, and there is no reason that those working in the state sector should not seek to govern in the independent sector."

Stimulating new ideas

As chief executive of United Learning, a chain of 40 academies and 13 independent schools, Jon Coles knows both systems well and is enthusiastic about Mr Harman's idea.

"You'd have this group of people working together on a regular, systematic basis," he told TES. "You're actually getting into the real issues that people are worried about in a school. You'd be looking at how a school in a different context deals with these issues. I think a head comes away stimulated by that."

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School, a comprehensive in Suffolk, took part in an exchange with Keith Budge, headteacher of the independent Bedales School in Hampshire, for a TES feature earlier this year ("Two leaders. Two sectors. One vision", 19 June). But Mr Barton questions whether becoming a private school governor would be the best use of his time.

"The reality of governing body meetings is that you get a lot presented to you," he said. "But being a governor is not always the best way of finding out about things."

Mr Harman, however, argues that deputy and assistant headteachers in state schools would also benefit from becoming governors in the fee-paying sector. "You're able to sharpen your critical faculties while remaining in the education sphere," he said. "It would open your eyes to different views. And you could also offer criticism and a fresh way of doing things."

`Spikes of excellence'

Mr Harman and Mr Coles were speaking after an event organised by the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education, which asked: "Does the independent schools sector really have all the answers for state school improvement?"

But a University of Warwick academic argues that there is little evidence to support the premise that greater independence leads to better educational standards (see panel, below).

And Mr Coles was quick to point out that independent and state headteachers often worked in very different circumstances. "I think it's very unusual to take one aspect of learning from one sector and translate it wholesale to the other," he said. "But there are spikes of excellence that we can learn from."

Read how state boarders are getting the `independent experience' on pages 16-17

Are academies built on guesswork?

Politicians are pushing for state schools to emulate the fee-paying sector based on little more than guesswork, an education academic warns.

Janet Harvey from the University of Warwick argues that there is little evidence to support the premise that greater independence leads to better educational standards, which policies such as the free school and academies programme are based on.

"In the absence of secure data, we move into the realms of informed guessing," the senior teaching fellow writes in her paper Are We Still Missing the Elephant?, presented at the annual British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society conference earlier this summer.

Dr Harvey suggests it would be more helpful to explore the "useful longitudinal knowledge" of private schools with a long history, which offer a "rich, longneglected field for enquiry."

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