If the Government is serious about ‘schools that work for everyone’ then they will jump at this proposal

The Telegraph, 09.12.16, "today marks a new and exciting era for children in England" writes HMC Chair Mike Buchanan, Head of Ashford School following the announcement that independent schools are offering to create thousands of new free places in independent schools for children from lower-income families.

Independent schools are offering to create thousands of new free places for children of all ages in our schools across the country, specifically for children in need - those on free school meals and from families that are just about managing.

There’s no catch; parents will not pay for these places and the UK taxpayer will not pay anything extra for these places either. The bulk of the cost will be borne by our schools. This proposal is high impact for children and their parents, low cost and low risk for the Government.

If you had the opportunity to send your child to an existing, outstanding, local independent school at no cost, I’m guessing a high proportion of you would do so and you would probably not understand it if the Government stopped this happening.

If the Government is serious about 'Schools that Work for Everyone' then they will jump at this proposal. Let me explain why.

Those of us who lead independent schools devote our lives to developing children and young people. Every one of us wants more young people to receive a great education and be exposed to the widest array of opportunities. It’s in all our interests that the young of the UK are well educated and able to contribute positively to society.

One of the myths about our schools is that they are bastions of unearned privilege. The truth is they are places of meritocratic opportunity. This proposal is a once in a generation opportunity to take a substantial step in extending those opportunities more widely and to reconsider the role of independent schools in this country.

These schools are world leaders as acknowledged by Theresa May in her current education consultation: "The UK’s independent schools have a long history and the best have a world-wide reputation for excellence. They produce excellent exam results and well-rounded citizens who go on to excel in a wide range of fields."

If the schools I represent were a country their results would rank alongside the top performers across the world. We are expert in rigorous subject teaching, high-quality pastoral care, varied, challenging activities and holistic boarding. Indeed, it’s this excellence which the Government has sought over many years to copy.

The Government needs to create more than 500,000 new school places in good schools in the coming years as the population grows and as they seek to provide greater choice for parents. We believe we can provide a substantial number of these new places, perhaps building up over time to 10,000 new entrants each year into our primary and secondary schools.

This will not cost you as the taxpayer anything extra.

When fully up and running, this change will save the taxpayer approximately £250 million each year by not having to build new schools. Our schools cannot do this completely out of their own pockets (or more correctly out of the pockets of their existing hard pressed parents and generous supporters) so we ask the Government to help get the ball rolling by providing the same money to our schools for each child as would be provided to a state school. We’ll do the rest.

We’ll make sure the children who benefit are from those families on lower incomes. We already have existing, effective ways of awarding funded places at our schools and will work with organisations such as Housing Associations to identify children who might benefit.

We already provide around £0.5m per day to those in need. We’ll happily commision independent research to show the positive impact of the outstanding education provided in our schools.

We’ll make sure children from all backgrounds are fully supported. We already have experience of this across our schools.

We’re confident our existing parents, former pupils and supporters of our schools will support this bold move to cement further our position as a national asset and, more importantly, to benefit even more children.

Our parents support our mission to work for all children because they see the positive impact such an example has on their own children and the UK as whole.

What we cannot offer is to change the education landscape entirely. That is rightly the job of Government. Our world class expertise is in particular areas.

The reality is that there are only 2,500 independent schools in England compared with over 25,000 state-funded schools. We educate roughly 7 per cent of the school-age population and the average size of our schools is just over 400 children. Some are much smaller than that and only 70 have more than 1,000 pupils.

We already work in partnership each year with 10,000 state schools and 160,000 state-school pupils. We are offering to add to an existing, extensive array of long-standing, mutually beneficial activities where there are willing partners. But there is a limit to what we can do without putting at risk the excellence of our schools on which all this activity depends.

So a new era begins today. We hope and expect the Government to take up our challenge to them to work with us to create these thousands of new places and we fully anticipate widespread support.

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