Independent Schools are not ivory towers says Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford, Headmaster of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and former Chairman of HMC expresses his personal views on academy sponsorship and working in partnership with maintained schools.

Independent schools are not ivory towers.  Whenever schools cross sectors to work together they discover the benefits of shared experience, and learn from similarities as much as differences. It's mutually invigorating, win-win all round.   

We already work closely with our neighbours. We collaborate in ways that are right for our schools and for those with whom we partner, and for the children in our area.  Academy sponsorship is great for some, and rightly applauded: but it cannot be imposed on all. Government would be unwise to put pressure on us to follow one required pattern in order to justify our existence in some undefined way.  That kind of rhetoric has already gone too far and wilfully overlooks the difficulties inherent in sponsorship.  

Academies are not yet popular everywhere.  Just up the road from my school last autumn there were teachers striking and a community up in arms about a top-achieving comprehensive school's plans to become an Academy.  It's hard to see how my high-profile independent school would be welcome wading into that highly-charged local political atmosphere.

The biggest of several elephants in the room is the question of selection.  The majority of independent schools are academically selective at age 11 or 13, to a greater or lesser extent.  Some claim to be "fairly comprehensive", but the adverb "fairly" is significant.  Few are genuinely or wholly so. What our schools do so well is mostly achieved with a relatively narrow ability range, even where we support a variety of special needs.  

Our greatest strength is our independence, which government pressure threatens. If policy-makers seek the involvement of independent schools (identified by OECD as the best in the world, remember), they should woo us, not preach at us; offer real advantages rather than mere withdrawal of disapproval; and strenuously avoid constraining the independence that truly defines our DNA by prescribing an approved mode of engagement.

Nonetheless, and despite my many reservations, I may yet work with a school in difficult circumstances: I may end up supporting HMC's Primary Academy Group and bringing to a maintained junior school what my school can realistically offer in a spirit of humility - though the time and resource has to be found from somewhere.  

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