Talking the talk not walking the walk

24th March 2006 at 00:00
There's plenty of discussion of state and independent school partnerships, but that's not enough, says HMC chair Andrew Boggis

My old German tutor at university, a dour man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of bizarre German vocabulary, would have his students learn the art of precis. Ideally, we were to summarise any given writer's life work within one punchy line. No such phrase stuck quite like his summary of the 19th-century playwright Heinrich von Kleist. "Never confuse," he would say, "schein with sein" - appearance with reality. As chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference I have come to appreciate more than ever the wisdom of these words. In education, the divide is not so much between the state and independent sectors as between the virtual world inhabited by politicians, commentators, journalists and some involved in educational organisations, and the actual school environment. Only too infrequently do these worlds converge.

The divergence between appearance and reality is rarely so marked as in the debate about partnerships between independent and state schools. In the interviews I have given as HMC chairman, the question about partnership was high on the list of priorities of every journalist; the underlying assumption being that this was equally high on the list of priorities of any good independent school. If that were the case, one might expect some collective discussion within the organisations representing the independent sector to have taken place. I am aware of none.

This matters hugely because the language used is so often loaded: "chasm", "tired conflict" and "apartheid" are three terms I have recently heard used purporting to describe relations between the sectors. The underlying assumption is that energetic, committed involvement on both "sides" will lead to a glorified and unified education system. If only.

What do independent schools want out of partnership? Independent schools will not be abolished nor supplanted in any foreseeable future. While they educate some 7 to 8 per cent nationally, they educate 20 per cent of those sitting A-levels. Furthermore, more than 40 per cent of those students gaining top grades in sciences, mathematics and modern languages are independently educated. Parents would not patronise independent schools, often at considerable cost, in such numbers - nor aspire to do so in far greater numbers -if they did not rate what they achieve. On those grounds alone one might legitimately expect the Government to appreciate, encourage, or even champion, such schools.

There is a weekly cartoon in Private Eye called "Scenes you seldom see". I can visualise one such cartoon: Ruth Kelly and her advisers approach us and say, "We rate what you do; we believe you can help the country and, by the way, we have brought a large chequebook along with us". Perhaps one day it will happen. And, yes, it does come down to cash. The money spent on the formal national stateindependent school partnership scheme rolled out across the country in seven years is actually less than the annual revenue of just one large independent school. Does this not tell us something about the Government's commitment to the scheme, or lack of it?

But if the cash was there, how would we spend it? My school has no difficulty recruiting top mathematicians to teach, precisely because we can offer top teaching in maths and further maths. But career teachers in independent schools could benefit personally and professionally from a period of secondment. So give my school pound;65,000 to cover the cost of employing a top teacher, including pension and National Insurance, and I shall second her or him to neighbouring schools. We are good at science too and could run a regular Saturday science club for which I should wish to pay the teachers properly; say pound;30,000 to employ four teachers for four hours on a Saturday for 30 weeks a year. Am I supposed to contemplate diverting the fees paid by parents of current pupils to fund such initiatives? Such measures require real cash.

With that cash we should also wish to expand on many small-scale, successful schemes. In a metropolitan area like east London, geography allows schools to co-operate in teaching minority subjects. I look forward to a real link with the local academy; perhaps in helping to teach their pupils who want to study Latin or modern languages. Is such co-operation feasible unless the state chooses to pay the full going rate? In the meantime, relatively small-scale individual and energetic initiatives will continue at my school and elsewhere for reasons which are variously sound, pragmatic, charitable. This is all very laudable and, for certain individuals involved, hugely beneficial. Nevertheless, I do wonder just how Heinrich von Kleist would have described such activities: schein or sein, appearance or reality? In the meantime, I will keep up my subscription to Private Eye, more in hope than expectation.

Andrew Boggis is chairman of The Headmasters' and Headmistresses'

Conference and Warden of Forest school, Snaresbrook

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