Richness beyond compare

11th November 2011 at 00:00

Suddenly, everyone is getting hot under the collar about David Cameron and Michael Gove saying they want independent schools to sponsor academies, ideally as sole sponsors, and with the academy taking the name of the independent school. This is what happened with Wellington Academy in Wiltshire, which opened in 2009.

State schools feel patronised. "What on earth has any independent school got to teach us?" I have frequently heard.

The truth is that independent schools have much to learn from state schools. For 15 years I have been running conferences that have tried to bring both sides together. Yet, only last month a senior independent school head was saying: "I can't sponsor an academy - I know nothing about state schools".

Well, why on earth not? What has that head been doing? Every independent school leader should have been following closely the innovations in the state sector in the past 10 years.

Independent school heads say they feel "bullied" by the Government. They have a point. Many independent schools have been paying to run extensive activities for local state school students: talk from the left that this was motivated by getting the Charity Commission off their backs is insulting. Altruism does exist. Many independent schools are also strapped for cash: some are wondering if they will survive, so pressuring them to be the sole sponsor of an academy is not realistic.

Department for Education officials are unhappy about the whole idea of independent schools sponsoring academies. Fixated on exam performance as the only indicator of whether a school is doing a good job, they question whether every independent school really has anything to offer a state school.

If the sole aspiration for schools is maximising the numbers of pupils achieving five A*-Cs at GCSE, they may have a point with some of the less academic independent schools. But a much broader vision of schools is the issue here: the future of the whole education model, and with it the wider social benefits of independent and state schools joining together in one family.

It is 10 years since I tried to start Brighton College Academy in a deprived area of east Brighton. It would have brought enormous benefits to the community but it was blocked by the council. The path has been much easier at Wellington College. From the moment I became head in 2006, I pushed to start an academy, and within the year a state school had been identified.

Wellington Academy has been the most satisfying development of my career. It gives a moral underpinning to Wellington College and has been the source of enormous richness of collaboration, between students, teachers, parents and governors. Exam results have improved dramatically since Wellington Academy came into being, but it is the wider moral and social benefits that I value far more highly.

I cannot emphasise too strongly how rejuvenating it is for an independent school to sponsor an academy, and how readily the obstacles can be circumvented by learning from the experience of those who have beaten the path.

In 10 years' time, I believe there will be 100 independent schools with named academies. The country will be much better for it.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire.

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