Public schools help state pupils get to Oxbridge

The Independent, 21/09/14, Richard Harman, Chairman of HMC and Headmaster of Uppingham School talks about a partnership working scheme with a state school academy which saw a student win a place at Oxford.

Uppingham, a leading independent boarding school, has sent a student to Oxford University this autumn. Hardly the stuff of headlines: the school’s reputation means it is the sort of the thing that happens every year. However, on this occasion the student was a pupil at a neighbouring state school academy, who was helped with her application because her own teachers lacked Uppingham’s expertise in this area.

“This is not sponsorship. It’s partnership, and it can be just as effective.”

Richard Harman, Headmaster Uppingham School

The student, from Malcolm Arnold academy in Northamptonshire, won a place at Oxford to study chemistry.

Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham, the 798-pupil boarding school in Rutland, said:  “At a school like this it is in the DNA [to go to Oxbridge]. We were successful with one student who comes from a very different background to many of our kids. We were as happy with her achievement as we would have been with any of our own students. It was all about raising aspirations in the academies.”

Mr Harman, who is also the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents 250 of the country’s most elite private schools, including Eton, believes this success is the first fruit of what could be a major push by the independent sector to help more state school students take advantage of the kind of education opportunities sometimes taken for granted at elite schools. Already a group of independent schools – including Tonbridge in Kent and Dulwich College in south London – are helping pupils draft application to the UK’s elite universities.

The key is in convincing the students that they can aspire to an Oxbridge place while passing on handy tips about how to survive the taxing interview process, and helping with preparing a CV.  Mr Harman insists the scheme shows that such work can be done by the private sector through partnerships with state schools, without sponsoring their own academies.

He intends to make this a theme of his chairman’s address to the organisation’s conference next week when he will reveal that the private sector is spending  £365m a year on bursaries and scholarships for less well-off pupils.

“Make no mistake, I’m not against sponsorship,” he said, “but there was a kind of mantra [from central Government and more recently chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw] that if you want to keep your charitable status, sponsor an academy – or watch out!

“This is not sponsorship. It’s partnership, and it can be just as effective.”

In his address, he will also plead with the Government and education standards watchdog Ofsted to abandon their reliance on “sterile performance measures” to judge schools, and broaden their horizons to look at the whole culture of a school instead.

He hopes to press his case in a meeting with new Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan. “If you get the culture right, people relate to each other and all sorts of other things will follow, contrary to the position with sterile performance measures that have frightened and are frightening so much of the education system,” he said.

“Now is the time to redress the balance. After all, how can you have an inspection system that comes in and says a school is outstanding and then just a few months later says it is failing? That can’t be right.”

Turning to Sir Michael Wilshaw, with whom he has already clashed – accusing him of “bullying” independent school heads through his comments that they should lose their charitable status if they fail to sponsor academies, he said: “Has he made things better or worse?  I think the jury is still out on that one.”

Mr Harman’s plea echoes points made by the CBI and Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt in recent months, with their calls for schools to place more emphasis on character-building and resilience in future. He detects signs there may be a change of heart at the Department for Education with the departure of Michael Gove as Education Secretary. In a letter to all headteachers at the start of this term, he noted Ms Morgan used the word “together” five times.

As to Mr Gove’s departure, he confesses: “I was quite surprised, but looking back on it I can understand it. He was a visionary and I applaud some of the professional things he’s done. But he became a zealot, and when you’re a zealot you can upset a lot of people.

“In the run-up to a general election, did they want to alienate any more teachers?”

By Richard Garner, The Independent. Read the full article © The Independent.