We’re not elitists in ivory towers, say private schools

TES, 20/03/15, independent schools will be expected to publish details of their partnerships with state schools on a new website, under an initiative designed to dispel preconceptions that they are “bastions of privilege”. HMC member Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle is quoted.

The site, expected to go live next month, is being funded by the Department for Education and has been personally championed by schools minister Lord Nash.

Charlotte Vere, acting general secretary of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which is developing the site on behalf of the government-funded Independent State School Partnerships Forum said “The reason we’re doing it is that we hear time and time again that people don’t understand the extent to which the independent sector interacts with people outside the school walls,” she said. “We’ve left ourselves open to criticism when we feel it’s not really due.”

The ISC claims that 90 per cent of independent schools already work in partnership with local schools and communities. Chair Barnaby Lenon said he hoped the initiative would encourage “even more schools to develop more meaningful and relevant partnership projects”.

The move comes amid mounting criticism of the independent school sector in recent months. In November, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt announced that, under a Labour government, private schools would lose £700 million in tax breaks unless they did more to help improve the quality of education in state schools.

“The division between state and private education corrodes our society, stifles opportunity and, by wasting talent, inflicts damage upon our economy,” Mr Hunt said. “Some private schools want to overcome this division, but most do not. It is time to stop asking politely.”

Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has also waded into the row. Last year he insisted that sponsoring an academy should be a “moral obligation” for independent schools that are in a “very privileged position”.

Hilary French, headteacher of Newcastle High School for Girls, said she hoped the new website would banish “sweeping, simplistic generalisations” about the independent sector.

“Too many people make too many assumptions,” she said. “They assume we’re for the privileged, that we’re elitist and in our ivory towers. Most independent schools have very ordinary pupils and there are a large number of bursaries. We’re not bastions of privilege.”

Partnership work, she added, was not about independent schools “bestowing their bounty on the maintained sector”, but rather about schools “genuinely working together”.

Bernard Trafford, headteacher of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, said it was “far too easy a political point” for politicians to “decide they don’t like the sector and decide we contribute nothing.”

The listings would “demonstrate how much the sector does”, and address “glib comments and generalisations that we haven’t done anything”, he added.

‘Look at us afresh’

Julie Lodrick, principal of the Mount School in York, argues that the new website has not been designed to “make schools feel bad about it if they aren’t doing as much as others”.

“It’s about making sure the people who don’t know much about the independent sector have a good grasp of what the reality is,” she adds.

“There’s a stereotype of the boater [hat], but there’s huge diversity. It’s about getting people to look at the independent sector afresh.”

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