Have we lost our moral purpose?

In the December 2012 issue of Independent Schools Magazine, Alex McGrath, head of Leighton Park School, talks about the pressure on independent schools to share their knowledge and facilities but, says Alex , this is approaching the difficulties in the maintained sector in the wrong way.

At the HMC conference in Belfast I attended a discussion forum entitled “Government and Education”. One speaker, Melissa Benn, (whose surname is a clue to the colour of her politics if not in fact her blood), exhorted us to support and even to convert to the status of, the maintained sector, rather than paying lip service to the charity commission with our bursaries which she said had the “whiff of paternalism” about them.

The fact is that independent schools - and certainly my own - are true to their charitable objectives. We are motivated by children, their needs, and education. We are motivated by a desire to teach our pupils about the world in which they live, and give those children the moral compass to choose the correct options in later life. Our alumni change the world for the better. They have character, integrity, moral courage, and their success often places them in positions which are influential. I was at an event in London recently to promote Soul of Africa: a charity set up by a millionaire old boy of Leighton Park School. It is not paternalistic, but a practical solution to problems of child poverty, vulnerability of women, and woeful infrastructure. I heard Lance Clark, the founder of the charity, speak with great emotion and passion about the profound good which the charity does. Afterwards, he asked me about the ways in which my school continues to embed the values of Quakerism which were at the core of his own integrity, moral concern, and also resilience and inner strength. He is now in his seventies, but was pleased to learn that the school to which he owed so much still had the same heart beating powerfully within it.

The whiff of paternalism suggests something suspected, but not necessarily certain. The stench of prejudice emanating from those politicians and commentators who attack the independent sector is real and present; so too the odour of political opportunism which Michael Gove and his ilk exude as they intervene haphazardly and dangerously in a clamour of chaos masquerading as action. Their jealousy, competition and blame infect the air which should be wholesome and fresh in any discussion on education. Let us be fair, some of the initiatives are well-meaning and well-motivated. Anyone who has heard Lord Adonis talk about his personal reasons for setting up Academies cannot doubt his zeal for improving the lives of children by providing far better schools. However, Free schools pioneered by Gove, Toby Young and others often seem to me to be motivated by parent groups who would rather not pay the fees for an independent, but are unwilling to work in partnership to improve the maintained schools around them, believing the mythology that all are poor. That is a different form of prejudice entirely!

The recently launched Springboard initiative, under the direction of former Blundell’s Head, Ian Davenport, or Rugby’s Arnold Foundation are examples not of paternalism, but of great independent schools working with agencies to make a real difference to the lives of young people, and to the communities from which they come. These initiatives, as Patrick Derham of Rugby will be happy to tell you, address poverty of aspiration, and transform lives. They are also expensive, and are helped by the “big name” of a school like Rugby. However, they are
pioneering initiatives to which leading independent schools can all aspire, and recreate within our own contexts.

Our DNA, that Labour and Coalition politicians want to inject into the state system as an antidote to mediocrity, cannot always work in the context of another school. Why? Because over
the years of any school’s existence there develops a culture and character which is unique to that school – whether independent or maintained – due to the leadership and experiences which have shaped it. We all can learn and share, but we cannot be cloned.

This is where schools like Leighton Park can look to the future. I believe that rather than sponsor an academy (which we cannot afford to do with our fee-paying parents’ money), or set
up a Free School which will remove children from other maintained schools to a perceived safer option, we should work in partnership with groups of schools in our area, while
retaining autonomy. Education is always better when there is sharing of experience and knowledge. We gain a broader perspective and deeper understanding when we collaborate
rather than ensconce ourselves in an ivory tower. It behoves us to seek ways to learn and share.

I have a vision of my school sharing best practice with maintained and independent providers, broadening the experience of teachers and students. I do not want to compete in a rancorous market place with local schools, because I do not think any child in an education system should lose out to a child at a school with more money, or bigger playing fields, or a cleaner laboratory, or a privileged position with the local and national politicians of the day (who are, after all, transitory). My purpose is to educate children and teachers. My position is
at the head of a leading independent school. If we are to solve the educational difficulties of this country, I believe independent schools should take that lead, with leaders of best
practice among our maintained school colleagues, for the good of every child in our country. If so politicians and the careerist educationalists clinging to their coat tails might concentrate on meddling elsewhere. We will be demonstrating our moral purpose powerfully. Children, and the passionate professionals who teach them, will be the beneficiaries.

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