The next few weeks are crunch time for everyone who cares about giving every child a good education. After months of negotiation, the Prime Minister is expected to detail how she plans to improve England’s schools. If she gets it right, more children from all walks of life will reach their potential and teachers from all sorts of schools will work together more effectively.
However, if she gets it wrong, pupils could end up worse off.
That’s why we as leaders of nearly 29,000 state and independent schools are making this unique appeal to Mrs May to tread carefully over children’s futures. We ask her to listen to those who run some of the UK’s most successful schools and make decisions based on evidence not instinct.
Why are we worried? Because some of the proposals in last year’s Green Paper “Schools that work for everyone” will work for no one. For example, the Government expects the (ill-defined) “biggest and most successful” independent schools to set up and run new state schools. The independent school would be responsible for the success of the state school and what’s more, the Department for Education would impose “exacting requirements” including insisting the school is good or outstanding within a set timeframe.
This is misguided and patronising.
Running state schools is essentially not the job of the independent sector. They don’t pretend to know better than their state school colleagues how to run schools in disadvantaged areas and certainly don't feel they can tell state school leaders how to do their job. Our state schools don't want takeovers; but they can certainly see how joint working can help their pupils.
If the independent schools refuse to play ball, the government suggests it will punish them financially.
Most independent schools are charities, runs the logic, so we can take away their tax breaks.
This might sound attractive but it ignores the facts. Independent schools gain about £150 million from their charitable status but they give much more back, including £350 million on scholarships and fee assistance for families from lower income backgrounds.
Some independent schools are already co-running new state schools, most famously Eton College (Holyport), Westminster School (Harris Academy) and the six schools who jointly established the London Academy of Excellence. Those projects have been successful for very specific reasons. There was a good match between the type of new school and its sponsor. They are generally close to the parent school, helping collaboration. And Westminster School, for example, is very clear that it does not in fact run Harris Westminster Academy – its state school partner is leading, with huge support from Westminster School.
The success of these highly particular new state schools cannot be held up as a blueprint for the future.
As school leaders, we know what works for pupils. And forcing independent schools to run, rather than help, state schools in deprived areas just won’t work.
Let's not forget, independent schools are supposed to be independent of government. The clue is in the name. If the Prime Minister tells them what to do as they are told or lose the financial benefits of being charities, many will walk away. This isn’t petulance. It goes much deeper than that. Being free from government interference, they argue, is why they fund themselves through fees and why they have been able to excel, free from under-investment and constantly changing educations policies. It is this independence, under the regulation of the Charity Commission, which creates the ethos that the government wants state schools to copy.
No one wants the nuclear option. It will cost millions which would have been better spent on state schools, soak up even more lawyers’ time (if there are any left over from Brexit) and put some small independent schools at risk of closure, bringing even more pupils into the cash-strapped state system.
Schools would no longer be able to afford the additional work they already do with state schools. State school pupils will lose much of the millions of pounds worth of free specialist teaching, sports coaching, careers and university entrance advice they currently receive.
These partnerships which already exist don't make for good political soundbites. But they work. Creating more of them is a great idea. Ministers and officials recognise their value and we all want to see an increase in the 160,000 state school pupils who already benefit. However, those who work on the front line know it requires willingness and equality on both sides and the flexibility to adapt to local circumstance. It’s also true that many state schools don’t wish or even need to work with independent schools. Forcing relationships rarely works.
There is still good reason to be optimistic. There is genuine willingness amongst independent schools to do more to assist pupils in state schools and thereby back Theresa May’s important social mobility project. There are substantive offers on the table which will create more good school places. State and independent school leaders, whilst they have their differences, collaborate and respect each other much more than is generally recognised - right now, they are working on a joint training project to provide more language teachers, with the Department for Education offering important assistance.
Theresa May is knocking at an open door in her request for help with better school places. Let’s hope she doesn’t accidentally shut that door in the faces of those who need help most.
Mike Buchanan, Chair, HMC
Russell Hobby, General Secretary, NAHT