Tricia Kelleher: Sponsoring an academy? There are better ways for private schools to be charitable

The Guardian, 18.03.16, the Ofsted chief, Michael Wilshaw, is always commendably clear when he addresses the ubiquitous iniquities (as he sees them) in education. At a summit last week he adopted his “spade is a shovel” approach, taking a swipe at the teaching profession – leaders and teachers.

The former are just plain poor; the latter need to be “battle-axes”. To make sure he was being inclusive in his criticism of education, Wilshaw also took a potshot at the independent sector, which in his view is failing to deliver what he believes is the minimum to justify charitable status, ie sponsoring a state academy.

Setting aside the technical detail that there is no requirement for independent schools to sponsor an academy to retain charitable status, Wilshaw’s suppressed fury about the failings of the independent sector captures a political narrative that has cast a long shadow over the sector, a shadow that has complicated its relationship with the maintained sector and the Department for Education.

While I applaud reciprocity between the sectors and am committed to the principle of social responsibility, how can it be right that a group of schools educating 7% of pupils in this country is expected to bear the responsibility for leveraging improvement in state schools, which are responsible for educating the other 93%?

A few independent schools with the means and capacity to sponsor an academy have, famously, accepted the challenge, much to the satisfaction of successive secretaries of state for education. However, the reality is that many schools in the sector do not have the wherewithal to undertake such a project in any meaningful way. Creating an academy with a “posh” brand does not in itself guarantee an improvement in the education offered by the school or the possible life chances of its students. Indeed, I would argue that structural change is in itself not enough to effect meaningful change within the school community.

Reflecting on why Wilshaw, the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, and her predecessor, Michael Gove, look to the independent sector as a beacon of excellence, it is certainly true to say that the independence of government enjoyed by independent schools (albeit within an ever tightening compliance framework) allows schools to focus on education in its purest sense.

Of course, this can equally be said of schools in the maintained sector. However, the barriers in the everyday life of state schools are far greater, because a high-level vision for teaching and learning can quickly become subverted by data-led targets, edicts from the Department for Education or a visit from Ofsted. An aspirational culture is that bit harder to create if young people and teachers are constantly being measured and increasingly found wanting.

Fundamentally, removing the perceived dead hand of the local education authorities from academies is not what makes the difference, and the government’s announcement of its intention to academise all schools is a chimera.

David Cameron proclaimed last year: “My vision for our schooling system should be that every school should aspire to have that independence, for the head to be captain of the ship, to be able to make greater determination about the future of that school.” Hear, hear!

Yet let’s be clear: Cameron is applauding an independence not enjoyed by state schools, whether they are academies or not. What independence really means is allowing the leaders of schools to lead with the appropriate levels of support and resource.

As an independent school leader of nearly 15 years’ standing, I have benefited hugely from the advice and support of governors, who have looked to me and my staff as professionals. Yes, we are held accountable, but this accountability is about more than process: it is about the vision of the school.

Because of our independence we can view education through a prism which is qualitative as well as quantitative. Similarly, it is the responsibility of senior and middle leaders to ensure teachers in the classroom are empowered to do their job to the best of their abilities.

Our ambition is that our young people are educated in a way that inspires a love of learning, and the teacher is critical in this. At a time of a looming crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, we value the professionalism of staff and make it our business to invest in their development. The success or otherwise of a school boils down to the everyday interactions between the student and the teacher.

Relationships; how do we measure these? We can’t. But because of our independence, we can view education through a prism that is qualitative as well as quantitative.

What does this all mean for Wilshaw’s clarion call for every independent school to sponsor an academy? It means he has misunderstood the sector. The Etons and Wellingtons of this world are few and far between. It also means that he does not really understand what independence means to schools in the independent sector, as opposed to the titular independence of academies.

As a socially responsible school, we have for some time been sharing dynamic digital resources, created by our teachers for our learners, with the world. These resources, lauded by publishers and examinations boards, are free to access from the iTunesU and iBook stores for teachers, students and parents, and are making a meaningful difference. We believe that the sharing of digital resources can be transformative, and shows there is more than one way for independent schools to be charitable. Maybe we can begin a different narrative.

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