Private schools with a public purpose

On Monday this week, St Mary’s Calne and the Girls’ Schools Association hosted a seminar in London to discuss the educational hot topic of our time: how independent schools can become more and more involved in the state sector, blurring boundaries which have grown up, and retuning, some would argue, to the original aims of private schools – to educate young people who would not otherwise be able to receive an education. Mr Bill Watkin of the Schools’ Network, which offers practical support to schools seeking to enter into partnership with state schools, was joined by the impressive Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, the Schools Commissioner, who spoke passionately about the urgency of helping under-performing state schools, so that no child would have his or her school years blighted by low aspirations and poor standards.

All the participants – Heads, Bursars and Governors – listened especially attentively, however, to our other speaker, Dr Albert Adams, former Head of Lick-Wilmerding School in San Francisco, and now an Advisor on Education, Leadership and Public Purpose. As the Head of Lick-Wilmerding, Al Adams spearheaded a vast number of initiatives in the local and national arena which had at their heart the concept of ‘public purpose’ despite – perhaps because of – being formed in and by private schools: summer school programmes, school-to-school partnerships, community service programmes, advisory work with struggling schools, professional development initiatives for teachers … the list was seemingly endless. Clearly, Dr Adams’ Governors were strongly supportive of the work that he did, even to the point of allocating 20% of his time to this project, but the benefits for the school, let alone the community, were manifold. His enthusiasm, however, was clearly the driver – he was passionate about his work, and this was palpable.

The messages of the afternoon were, in the end, simple: it is time to leave behind the antagonisms that have existed in our recent educational past between the private and public sectors, and to embrace the real value that independent schools bring to the UK educational scene. Schools need to play their part in this; so does our government and media. When this happens, it opens the door for independent schools to do what they are really good at – lead learning, both in their own schools and in partnership with other schools. We have immense talent in the independent sector – and, working with the outstanding elements of the state sector, we can really effect change.

The key, however, is reciprocity. This is not a case, as Dr Adams put it, of ‘noblesse oblige’; independent schools are not pretending to know all the answers and to impose them on others. Our independence is our strength, and we have evolved into powerful places of learning – an educational power which we can share, but which will grow still further through the act of sharing, as our staff develop a broader skill set and bring this expertise to a wider range of young people, who in turn can learn to understand and appreciate one another better. Successful programmes will always be mutually beneficial, and this was a core message of our meeting of minds.

These are exciting and interesting times in education – let us see where they take us.

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