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22 February 2012
Reform roundtable seminar introduced by Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, on Tuesday 21 February.
“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.” – David Cameron, speech to Conservative Party Conference, October 2011
On Tuesday, Reform held a seminar under the Chatham House Rule with Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, which has established a sponsored academy, to discuss how the independent sector can help state-funded schools. In his opening comments, Dr Seldon argued that independent schools can have a transformative impact. Given the downsides of investment risk and time, he suggested that there is a role for the four “peak” bodies in the sector – the Independent Schools Council (ISC), The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) and the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS). These bodies could help schools with setting up academies (providing support such as legal and financial advice) and should aim to rival the academy chains which are growing in number.
It was widely agreed that both independent and state schools have a lot to gain from working together. However, there were some concerns over the policy focus.
Firstly, there was doubt about whether academies can solve to the main problem faced by our education system; namely the extent of poor achievement. Academies have been praised for the additional freedoms they grant headteachers, yet the use of these freedoms has often been over-played. Representatives from the independent sector were keen to highlight that the keystone of success in their sector is this independence. It is unclear whether academy status, or even free school status, goes far enough in this respect. For example, representatives from the private sector were surprised to learn of the restrictions and demands made on free schools by central government.
Another key concern was the cost to the independent sector. Only a small proportion of independent schools are actually resource rich. At a time when independent schools are feeling the squeeze, these new relationships need to be cost neutral. Some approaches, such as sharing culture and ethos, don’t cost money. Governance support came through as another area where the state sector has lots to learn about making the most of independence. One attendee, who is involved in setting up a free school, pointed out that if there is a cost to independent schools in providing this support, then it should be charged for. For example, at their free school they have bought in advice, equivalent to the cost of half a teacher.