Let’s stop the divisive rhetoric damaging private and state school relations

The Guardian Teacher Network, 04/12/12, Richard Harman, Chairman of HMC, discusses tax breaks, international students and why Ofqual still isn’t making the grade.

It has not been a good few weeks for private and state school relations.

The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, threatened a loss of tax breaks for independent schools that fail to help their state colleagues. Hunt was accused of starting a “class war”, his old headteacher described the plans as “offensive bigotry” and Sam Freedman, Teach First director, argued that state schools don’t need the private sector’s advice.

Richard Harman, the head of a top private school and chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), wants to end the rhetoric of division. He applauds Hunt’s enthusiasm for independent and state partnerships, but says the shadow minister has gone about things the wrong way.

“The language of tax breaks is inaccurate and unhelpful,” Harman says.

“Independent schools make a major contribution to the country economically and it’s important to emphasise that. Implying that the tax payer is subsidising independent schools ignores their financial contribution.”

Harman, headteacher of Uppingham school in Rutland, England, compares Hunt’s proposals to forced marriage; state and private partnerships are about relationships and they work best when each side has an equal stake.

He adds that there are quite a number of hurdles to overcome for Hunt’s plan to come together. “It begs a number of questions about the law and legislation and how it would work in practice – who is going to oversee this?”

A better approach, says Harman, would be to use regional school commissioners to bring state and independent schools together on a voluntary basis to discuss best practice – rather than taking a top-down approach.

Harman is at pains to make it clear that the average independent school pupil is not the wing-collared stereotype portrayed by some in the media, national politicians or those who see themselves as “class warriors” – nor are they full of foreign oligarchs’ children.

“The average independent school, particularly independent day schools in major regional centres outside of London, has a pupil population that really reflects their local communities, and they are serving them. Those schools are often ignored by national politicians and the media to make their own political points and serve their own purposes.”

Although the 2013 census of the Independent Schools Council showed the number of foreign students rose 1.4% while the number of home-grown students stagnated, according to Harman, this number fell slightly this year.

Indeed, Harman defends the international make-up of certain private schools. Some are “validly international” and that’s a good thing, bringing great diversity and talent to the UK.

“There is a very positive side to the international student market and our schools are in huge demand from aspiring families overseas. But the actual facts and numbers show that they are not by any means flooding our schools or anything like that. Yes, some schools are international and some have foreign students in them, like mine, but still 85-90% of students live in the UK. It’s a complete parody to say that we are being taken over by oligarchs. It’s nonsense.”

Elsewhere, the HMC have been working with the Association of School and College Leaders to scrutinise the exam regulator Ofqual. In 2012 HMC published a report exposing the “truly shocking” failings in the way exams are marked; the union criticised weaknesses including poor marking, inconsistencies between exam boards and fluctuating grade boundaries.

Despite pressure, exam marking hasn’t improved enough, says Harman. This year some universities accepted people even though they only just made the grade, which meant that some issues remained hidden. “So some flaws in the marking system never quite came to light, but the ones that did show some problems in the system have not been eradicated and we need to maintain pressure to make Ofqual demand high quality marking from the exam boards.”

“One of the issues is around making sure that there is fairness in the marking between boards and subjects. My school might have taken one board in history and not had problems but another could have used a different board and had problems.”

English GCSEs proved particularly unstable, he says. “Cohorts of pupils with the same basic profile of ability and taught using the same basic approach to teaching had very volatile results. This can only be explained away by vagary, or rogue marking or problems at the exam boards’ end.”

Harman stresses that the pressure they are applying to improve Ofqual is not just for the benefit of private school pupils. “HMC stepped up to plate and said something is not right and we are going to pursue it. We took leadership with that and that has benefitted the whole system.”

But Harman does concede that it’s a two-way street. “Teaching requires passion, a desire to convey a subject with enthusiasm and an ability to manage the class in front of you. There are examples of outstanding teaching in both sectors so let’s stop the rhetoric that divides the sectors. Teaching children presents different challenges depending on the school and the time. But let’s get away from the language of division and comparison and get onto what we can learn from each other.”

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