Independent schools – islands of privilege, or bridge-builders?

In his Sunday Times blog, 30/06/13, Andrew Halls, Headmaster of King's College School, Wimbledon talks about the long-standing Wimbledon partnership which ensures bridge-building between independent and maintained schools.

I remember seeing Sir Michael Wilshaw, now Chief Inspector of Schools, but then head of a very successful London comprehensive school, address an audience of fellow heads. He has an engaging, “straight-shooter” style, and it is bracingly free of self-doubt. He showed only one slide during his talk: an image of Clint Eastwood. In case we were unable to draw the parallel for ourselves, he told us that the slide was a metaphorical representation of himself – or at least, his style of headship. He hunted down bad practice, or bad teachers, and he made things work.

This week, Sir Michael has aimed his fire at independent schools. He says that fee-charging schools risk being “marooned on an island of privilege”, and asks why more independent schools have not sponsored academies.

Sir Michael’s emotive language is not wholly unfair. As head of a fee-charging school located beside Wimbledon Common, an area with one of the lowest crime rates in London, and some of the highest house prices, surely I must accept that King’s College School fits his description exactly? We have five strong applicants for every place, the boys and girls are bright and courteous, with high aspirations, and they are a pleasure to teach. We are launching a ten year development plan, and within a single term we received pledges totalling over £2m from just three or four families. This is not the world in which I grew up, nor would it be familiar to most British people.

So does this mean we are “marooned”, out of touch with the real world, oblivious to the reality of the maintained schools in our wider neighbourhood?

Last night, I was at a birthday party in the House of Commons hosted by our excellent local MP, Stephen Hammond. We were celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Wimbledon Partnership: a group of eight secondary schools, all state schools except King’s, who have worked to support each other in countless ways over the last decade. The founder of the scheme, Heather McKissack, the senior mistress at King’s, believed that many state schools in our wider neighbourhood were already highly aspirational and successful. They did not need rebadging as academies, or “sponsoring” by independent schools. They needed to be in a partnership of equals, a network of professionals, bringing their pupils together, sharing good practice, facilities, and ideas. She made it her mission to ensure King’s made this happen.

At first, the partnership was sponsored by the government, but as most of the funding was gradually withdrawn, King’s decided to provide the funds itself. Not a single King’s parent has ever complained. In fact – quite the opposite: the Wimbledon Partnership scheme is widely seen as a jewel in the crown. One of the many schemes we organise under the partnership is that King’s sixth formers teach Latin to girls at Coombe Girls’ school in Kingston. A year ago, the last bit of funding we received, and that supported this scheme, was withdrawn. Immediately, a King’s family stepped in and provided the funding themselves.

Every week, Friday afternoons are devoted at my school to activities: sport, clubs, Duke of Edinburgh, the CCF, and so forth. All are popular, but more than 300 King’s pupils in the senior years join partnership activities. We conduct these with over twenty local state schools – many beyond the original Wimbledon partnership of eight.

It is impossible to do justice to all that occurs. Some of our pupils assist with sports coaching, others with drama and music at secondary, primary and special schools. Boys from one local school join our cadet force (the CCF) for weekly training and drill and CCF camps in the holidays. On regular Saturdays throughout the year, we host pupils for an Aspirations Programme. Local schools nominate children in Year 9 who they think could flourish at university, but whose families have no experience of further education. Many of the pupils are from challenging homes, but have something about them that their school wants to liberate. They join the Aspirations Programme, and they stay with it until they reach the Sixth Form.

In the Aspirations Programme alone we have over 70 local children involved at any given time. Staff from King’s and the partnership schools arrange a whole programme of events until the pupils are ready to make their university choices in Year 12. It is an extraordinary success.

In the summer holidays, we run an Open Doors week, when children from Merton primary schools come to King’s each day for art, drama, music and games, putting on a presentation at the end of the week in the theatre or the games fields, for their families to attend. It is all about working with the maintained schools, about learning from each other, and having faith and trust in one another, too.

We also run GCSE revision classes throughout the spring term – after school, every week. Hundreds of boys and girls join us for these. The programme has certainly played a key part in the transformation of public exam results across the state schools in the Wimbledon Partnership. In just four years, the average number of students achieving A*-C in five GCSEs including English and Maths in these schools has risen from 49% to 63%.

Academies are an excellent approach, and if independent schools wish to support them, that is good for everyone. But at the heart of any successful relationship is the trust that arises from a union of equals. That is the model for the Wimbledon partnership, and why we, as headteachers, staff and pupils, all get along so well together and achieve so much.

King’s is also actively involved in supporting two very different projects – the London Academy of Excellence, and the new King’s Maths School in Waterloo. Both are aimed at helping sixth formers achieve high academic results. As the UK’s top-performing A level or IB boys’ or co-ed school last summer, King’s College School can help with that ambition. We are proud of these initiatives, but after so much success, I hope Sir Michael will allow us to feel equally proud of ten years working side by side with our partner schools in the state sector.

Sir Michael is right to ask the two sectors to work together. But he should know that the bridge-building in some areas began years ago, and has never stopped – even if the funding did. Bridge-building and partnerships may not make headlines. Most things that succeed, and last, tend not to. They may not catch the eye of politicians – for the same reason. But they are a quiet and humane force for good within the educational world. And the thing I like best? They work.

Click here to read the blog.