Melissa Benn’s piece in last week’s Tes magazine on why we need a national education service opened with: “In [my] research…I was genuinely surprised to discover the degree of consensus that exists regarding the key problems facing English education.”
Towards the end of this well-reasoned piece, she commented: “And perhaps most important of all: how, over the next few decades, can we resolve the historic barriers between private and state education, in order to build a common school system used by all families?”
In that potent question lies perhaps the lowest degree of consensus: yet, with the caveat that, for 28 years, I was an independent school head, I’m convinced we must address it.
Ms Benn calls for something far more creative than the predictable tax-based attacks on the independent sector currently proposed by both Labour and the Lib Dems: “Look at those countries that have successfully reworked their education system, often in dramatic fashion: such reform was usually preceded by years of honest reflection and debate. What’s stopping us from imagining, and discussing, a common system – a genuinely 'national’ education service?”
What’s stopping us? I’d suggest governments obsessed with control and systems, hampered by politicians’ short-termism and desire for quick fixes and hamstrung by dogma and lack of courage.
Seeing the independent sector as a “problem” is a prevalent but willfully jaundiced political and media angle. Far from being pleased that international studies such as PISA identify it as a group of the best schools in the world, our nation’s skewed political lens sees something dirty in it.
By contrast, the recent joint understanding between the Independent Schools Council and the DfE (endorsed, if quietly, by education secretary Damian Hinds) demonstrates a willingness to work together. Schools up and down the country are rightly proud of the excellent cross-sector partnership work that, through teacher-training, CPD, sporting, cultural and a host of other shared activities, are achieving significant local, regional and national impacts for children.
Ms Benn, by implication, urges more: she’s right to do so but, on their own, schools cannot do more. Yet government can. Australia’s education system funds and blurs both state and independent sectors: the system appears to work well.
A year or two back, the UK’s independent sector offered 10,000 places in its schools, if the government would fund them at its national per capita rate. At a stroke this would have started to bridge the perceived divide, open up the private sector and help address the impending national shortage of school places.
That offer was unfairly caricatured in much of the media as the sector trying to fill its empty places. The urban independent schools I have run represent a powerful segment within the sector. The former city and/or direct grant grammars are frequently oversubscribed: nonetheless, always mindful of their historical mission, they grieve that their strenuous efforts at fundraising rarely stretch to financing even 10 per cent of their places for children from deprived backgrounds.
Politicians should recognise that three-quarters of independent schools are charities, like multi-academy trusts (MATs), making no profit and ploughing all earnings, any surpluses, back into the education provided.
They generally boast excellent facilities: but then, so do many academies. Melissa Benn praises the spectacular building designed by Norman Foster for Capital City Academy in Brent: “It is a stunning structure, testament to one of the foundational stones of the National Education Service: our disadvantaged children deserve the best.”
Melissa Benn laudably avoids grinding any political axe, rather calling for open-minded, visionary discussion and planning. Like her, policymakers should stop seeing independent schools as a barrier to social mobility and equity, overcome their myopia, prejudice and short-termism, get around the table with their representatives and explore ways of turning what’s branded a problem into a solution.
My experience (and my past efforts) suggest they would be pushing at an open door: thus disadvantaged children might indeed gain access to that “deserved best”.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former independent school headteacher and a past chair of HMC. He Tweets at @bernardtrafford