Thursday, 6 October 2011

Is there really an apartheid between State and Independent Schools?

In his speech at the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron vowed to end the ‘apartheid’ between private and state schools: 
"And here's something else we're going to do. In Britain today, we have schools that are intolerant of failure, where ninety percent of pupils get five good GCSEs. Yes: private schools. You've heard me talk about social responsibility so let me say this.
I want to see private schools start Academies, and sponsor Academies in the state system. Wellington College does it, Dulwich does it - others can too.
The apartheid between our private and state schools is one of the biggest wasted opportunities in our country today. So let it be this party that helps tear it down."
There are a number of differences between the Independent and State sectors, most notably around what it means to be "independent" as Ken Durham argued in his HMC Conference Chairman's Address [see previous blogpost] this week.  Also, as David Cameron recognised in his speech, there are quantifiable differences in academic outcomes, not to mention co-curricular provision.  

But is there really an apartheid between private and state schools? No, of course there is not. Every independent school has close links with schools in the Maintained sector, a few sponsor Academies, most are engaged at a local level working closely with the state schools in their areas in a whole range of ways. 

I am a great supporter of the Academies programme and I am not asking for special pleading here - I'm on board. Berkhamsted is one of the few schools that sponsor an academy, the Wren Academy in Barnet. I am a Governor there and am very proud of what the staff, pupils and governors have achieved there in the past four years.

As David Cameron  once again repeated today, the Government defines independent sector engagement with the maintained sector in terms of the Academies programme.  I believe that this is blinkered and unhelpful. By using such a narrow measure, the Government is ignoring the many other ways in which Independent schools work alongside schools in the Maintained sector. 

I think we need to ask how Independent Schools can best work alongside schools in the Maintained sector.  

When I look at Berkhamsted's relationship with the Wren Academy, there are two areas which stand out. Strong governance is of course important, but also expertise in examination teaching where we have a proven track record of success by any measure.  Of these the latter has the most potential.  The liaison between Heads of Department in the two schools is beginning to have a significant impact, and that liaison strictly falls outside the terms of the Academy sponsorship agreement. In particular, we have provided support and advice on how to teach GCSE and are embarking on helping the Wren staff to develop the structure of the A-level curriculum. 

But Berkhamsted's engagement with the Maintained sector is much wider than that. For example, we work with a number of local maintained sector schools, particularly when it comes to careers and university guidance. Our annual careers and Universities Fair is not just for our pupils, we invite all the local schools; likewise with our careers day on applying to university for Medicine. Furthermore, most of our sixth form pupils give up some of their free time to go into local state schools to listen to pupils read, as part of their community service programme - the sixth form alone did over 2600 hours community service last year.  

I would like David Cameron, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb to remove the blinkers. I think that they have every right to expect every Independent School to work with schools in the maintained sector, but they need to recognise that we are independent and that we will choose to exercise our social responsibility in a number of different ways.  Rather than being prescriptive, I would like to hear this Government encourage our schools to foster ever closer links in whatever ways the schools on the ground see fit. 

There is no apartheid between the private and state schools.  There is no need to build walls just so politicians can knock them down - the bridges are already built - we already working closely together.

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