“I’m sorry to say but the ISC’s list of activities is hardly evidence of a comprehensive commitment to partnership with state schools. It’s thin stuff. These are crumbs off your tables, leading to more famine than feast … It’s hard not to conclude that too many in the independent sector are far more concerned with issues within their own walls than beyond them.”
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted
Credit where credit is due. Sir Michael Wilshaw made this scathing attack on the independent sector whilst a guest speaker at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in London. He looked the leading Head teachers in the independent sector in the eye and let their serried ranks have it. In his speech Sir Michael said the country faced a “Lord Kitchener moment” where private school heads had to offer help to the nation’s state schools and dispel the perception they “do not care about the educational world beyond their cloisters and quads.
“Your country needs you, the state sector needs you,” he added.
At least that is the narrative Sir Michael would like to present. In reality, this blatantly provocative challenge is not only ill-advised but ill-informed. Ill-advised? If he seeks to strengthen links between the independent and the maintained sectors surely a more emollient and inspiring tone would win hearts and minds rather than the whiff of Victorian homily exhorting the independent sector to do better. Ill-informed because Sir Michael’s demonstrates an incomplete understanding of the importance to independent schools of public benefit in maintaining their charitable status.
The importance of charitable status for the independent sector has been played out in the courts and hungrily reported by the national press keen to seize an opportunity to attack “posh” schools . Prior to the 2006 Charities Act, independent schools were able automatically to claim charitable status because of their educational purpose which allowed them a range of tax benefits. However, the Charity Commission determined, following this statute, that independent schools had to pass a public benefit test showing they offered public benefit to wider society, not just those paying fees. The independent sector therefore is acutely conscious of its obligations and its role within local communities.
Yet I would strongly argue that any good school should seek to fulfil this obligation. As a city centre school we are truly embedded in our local community. We are constantly seeking to strengthen links in a variety of ways with schools and organisations locally which make a difference to people’s lives. We view such collaboration as being of mutual benefit. Engagement in the life of the wider world is an integral part of the education of a student at the Stephen Perse Foundation. Why? Because central to our philosophy is the importance of character. Our experience is that students, through service-learning, become actively engaged with the diversity and challenges which surround them on a daily basis. The real world is important to their personal development and it our belief that the school should facilitate this and not act as a barrier.
Like many other independent schools, we offer a huge range of opportunities for our students funded both by the school and by educational charities. Illustrative of this is a particularly successful project sponsored by “Shine”, a charity based in London, which aims to inspire a love of learning in children from challenging backgrounds. The “Serious Fun on Saturday” activity has enabled children from primary schools, carefully identified by their schools, to do just that – have fun in a different setting and not always realising they are learning. Their sixth form mentors benefit equally from this opportunity. Indeed it has become customary for sixth formers and their charges to enjoy a mutual weep at the end of a project, a testament to the bond which has been forged.
This is of course less headline grabbing than sponsoring an academy. Lord Adonis famously addressed an previous HMC conference where he set out the stall of the then government : “It is your educational DNA we are seeking….” Sir Michael Wilshaw’s admonishment about “crumbs from the table” is therefore no surprise although more hawkishly expressed than Adonis. Collaboration and partnerships are small beer in this view of the world where nothing less than structural change under the aegis of an independent school will create the ethos required to drive up standards.
But there is a cautionary note to be struck. The DNA of a school does not lie in its name alone however illustrious. The media coverage of Wellington Academy, sponsored by Wellington College, with the untimely departure of its Head following a dip in examination results, shows the name is no silver bullet. A school’s success is based on a myriad of factors all wrapped up in a community with a sense of common purpose. This ethos must be forged from within – in the everyday learning of a school whether independent or maintained. This is where collaboration and partnerships across the sectors can be transformative for students. Ultimately it must be about the learning experience and not about some misguided philanthropy unwarranted and unwanted by colleagues working in the maintained sector.
Indeed, as the maintained sector itself becomes more diverse with the growth of academies and free school, there is even more of an imperative to work together. Surely to collaborate and share enriches us all and offers extraordinary opportunities to our students.