In an article in the Telegraph, 17/11/12, HMC Chairman Dr Christopher Ray argues that private schools are demonised in Britain but are the envy of the world.
The success of the sector is immense: one in five of those attending Britain’s top 10 universities come from Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) schools
'Education, Education, Education” was a political ambition, later an embarrassment, and finally a book by Lord Adonis, the former Labour minister. The ambition is straightforward: education certainly is vital for Britain.
When Andrew Adonis joined Tony Blair’s team in 1998, the education budget stood at £39 billion. Ten years later, when he left the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the budget had doubled. Yet education stubbornly resisted improvement. Although standards appeared to be rising at GCSE and A-level, there was a feeling that narrow “teaching to the test” and grade inflation were flattering to deceive. Our rankings in the OECD’s Pisa tables plummeted. Education, despite the “spend, spend, spend”, had become an abject “mess, mess, mess”.
No wonder parents are turning to independent schools. In 1997, 41 per cent of parents said they would not consider independent education for their children; by 2011, this had fallen to 27 per cent. Children in independent schools, many of which are no more selective than most sixth-form colleges, are three times more likely to gain an A or A* at A-level than those in state schools, so it is not surprising that 57 per cent of parents would send their children to an independent school if they could afford to. Even now, these schools educate half a million children.
The success of the sector is immense: one in five of those attending Britain’s top 10 universities come from Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) schools. We are the envy of the educational world, even though we are demonised by some at home. The existence of successful independent schools is an irritant to many Labour politicians, a puzzle to Liberal Democrats, and – it often seems – an embarrassment to the Prime Minister. We are often damned with faint praise, in the knowledge that politicians cannot afford either financially or politically to dismantle us, whatever sabre-rattling they may employ.
Even so, Adonis asked us to donate our DNA to the state sector. In doing so, he failed to understand the nature of the independent sector. When I consider the membership of the HMC, I do not see a single kind of animal that can easily be replicated. What really distinguishes us is our financial independence.
It is ludicrous to characterise us all as exclusive public schools, educating only the rich. This is often a wilful mischaracterisation. The tendency to minimise the public benefit provided by independent schools is also often malicious.
My own school is not unusual in having thriving partnerships with 10 state primary schools, robust links with three academies, and in providing 230 bursaries for children from poorer families. What drives us to engage with those beyond our gates is not just a sense of charitable duty; it is also an essential part of our educational vision.
Adonis and others who see academies as the panacea for all educational ills may choose to regard all other enterprises as of less value. But our partners in the state sector and elsewhere do not; and nor does the Department for Education, which seems recently to be less obsessed with the “moral imperative” for independent schools to sponsor academies.
Whatever academies are, they are not independent. This term has been abused by those who would like to dupe us into thinking that red is blue. The strength of the independent sector derives from its genuine independence. Academies remain financially dependent upon the state, albeit in many cases through the intermediary of powerful “chains” headed by increasingly dominant chief executives; and what one secretary of state may give, another may take away.
This fatal flaw will undermine this particular attempt to reinvent the educational wheel. The academies’ advocates should see this limited independence for what it is: merely a first step towards realising the dream, in which parents and teachers – rather than local or national government – really do call the shots, and education really is free.
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