Heads won't be roped into partnership

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Academy sponsorship is not for us all, says Bernard Trafford

It hasn't been said in so many words, but the writing's on the wall. If independent schools wish to be "acceptable", to bask in the favour of politicians, they would do well to sponsor an academy. Note that I said "politicians", not government. This issue has united all three main parties. It is as if there is now something dirty about independent schools: get stuck into the academies programme, or endure the disapproval of the political establishment. But some independents might say, "Don't we already broaden access to the less well-off and aid social mobility through bursaries?" Unfortunately, politicians have decided they're irrelevant.

Such tunnel vision undervalues just how much the sector contributes. Independents are not ivory towers. We already work closely with our neighbours (if I hear mention of the inter-sector Berlin Wall once more, I may kill someone!). We collaborate in ways that are right for our schools and for those we partner, and for the pupils in our area. Academy sponsorship is great for some, and rightly applauded, but cannot be imposed on all. Government would be unwise to put pressure on us to follow one required pattern to justify our existence. That rhetoric has already gone too far and overlooks the difficulties inherent in sponsorship.

Advocates of cross-sector academy sponsorship characterise independents as the single model for success in all schools. "Sharing our DNA" has become a flattering, if irritating, mantra. Those of us who retain a degree of scepticism (and humility) question how much we can really offer on discipline and standards in the more difficult setting of a failing school. My school's ethos is distinctive, but the image frequently portrayed (tight discipline, smart uniforms, prefects and house systems) is not our DNA. Those are superficial symptoms of something much deeper - a viscerally liberal approach to education markedly at odds with the "tough love" frequently boasted by academies. Moreover, government targets and simplistic Ofsted judgements are alien and inimical to our modus operandi.

Involvement is not without cost. I lose sleep about finding the capacity in my professional life, let alone my colleagues' lives, to take spare energy from my school into another. Some schools have found it, and I admire them for it. In my school I see none, nor spare money. We charge parents the lowest fee compatible with excellence. We spend their money on excellent staff and facilities, but rarely on non-core activities - nor on consultants. Nor would I want my high-profile independent school to wade into a highly charged political atmosphere: academies are not popular everywhere and have even provoked the odd strike.

The biggest of several elephants in the room is the question of selection. The majority of independent schools are academically selective at age 11 or 13. Some claim to be "fairly comprehensive", but the adverb "fairly" is significant: few are genuinely or wholly so. What our schools do so well is mostly achieved with a relatively narrow ability range, even where we support a variety of special needs. With their grand talk and broad-brush vision, academy advocates are quick to overlook this significant aspect of our DNA. But true partnership demands honesty, not coy avoidance of the difficult topics.

Our greatest strength is our independence, which government pressure threatens. If policymakers seek the involvement of independent schools, they should woo us, not preach at us; offer real advantages rather than mere withdrawal of disapproval; and strenuously avoid constraining the independence that defines our DNA by prescribing an approved mode of engagement.

Despite my many reservations, I may yet work with a school in difficult circumstances, after assessing what my school can realistically offer in a spirit of humility. I shall be obliged to negotiate robustly. If I find myself pushed down a path inimical to my school, I shall be out of it like a shot and heading for the hills. And I don't think I'd be alone.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal.

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