There has of late been a whirlwind of activity in the field of national educational debate in the UK, with a drive on the part of Government to encourage independent schools to sponsor failing state schools as they become Academies – effectively, semi-independent state schools. (I say ‘semi-independent’ because I have yet to be convinced that Academies will have the true independence experienced by fee-paying independent schools, which can – albeit within a regulatory framework designed to keep children safe – respond immediately and effectively to the needs of their children and their parents.)
At a lunch last term at Guildhall in the City of London, Michael Gove said that independent schools should ‘hang their heads in shame’ if they did not sponsor an Academy; at a meeting in Downing Street earlier this month both David Cameron and Michael Gove made a similarly robust case for independent schools to take over state schools; a symposium on Academies at Wellington College last Thursday was well-attended by the great and the good in the independent sector; independent school leaders are meeting with Government officials – the Girls’ Schools Association, for instance, met with Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, the Schools Commissioner, last week. It seems very much as though there is a movement which is taking us towards a blurring of the boundaries between state and independent education, and there seems to be a cross-party commitment to the Academies programme.
Why is the Academies programme so important? The argument is as follows: education is without doubt vital for the future of the young people in this country and for the country as a whole. There are too many under-performing schools, which are blighting the education and aspirations of too many young people. A good – great – school has a strong, aspirational ethos, outstanding teachers and strong, robust, autonomous leadership. Independent schools have this expertise, this ‘DNA’, as Lord Adonis called it several years ago. It takes only a small step of the imagination to see that the state sector could benefit from the involvement and engagement of the independent sector.
So why should independent schools even entertain the notion of ploughing time, effort, and – no doubt, in due course – financial resources – into state education? This question has yet to be answered in the minds of many, and many more are extremely cautious, but when the answer comes, it will be connected with the original charitable aims of our independent schools, many of which were set up to educate the poor and disadvantaged. It will also be because as educators we have a strong sense of moral purpose in what we do, and this means reaching out beyond what we do in school to the wider community and world. It will be because we recognise that we have huge experience in running extraordinarily fine schools, and that we have a responsibility to share this. And it will be because we understand that our pupils will benefit when our teachers will gain an even greater breadth of experience.
There are many difficult hurdles ahead, both practical and conceptual – the relationship between Government and schools, for example, not to mention the thorny issue of funding and investment (who pays and how much?). No school should be rushing into this kind of relationship. But when you look at all the successful and mutually rewarding partnerships we already have in place across the independent-state divide, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we might edge yet closer.
If our young people benefit, then we owe it to them at the very least to consider it.