Tristram Hunt, the shadow education minister, has declared class warfare on independent schools that fail to fulfil their obligations to their community.
If independent schools want to keep their business rates relief, according to Hunt’s plan, they’ll need to form “genuine and accountable partnerships” with their state colleagues. As Hunt says: “We want to see more private schools running summer schools, sponsoring academies, assisting state boarding schools and assisting professional exchange.”
My school is absolutely committed to outreach work – not just to tick the box and say we have done it, but because of the educational benefits for our pupils and the young people in the schools that we partner with.
The children coming through our schools need to be able to go out into the wider world and understand each other. In last year’s outreach programme, teachers worked closely with local primaries to offer stretch activities in maths and philosophy.
Our students also worked in a variety of schools where among other things they helped children with reading or taught dance. The Serious Fun on a Saturday Morning programme identified children from more challenging backgrounds in partnership with their school and worked with them, over several weekends, on a creative arts project. Children from a local primary came into our junior school to use iPads for learning and, in common with many other independent schools, we share facilities, such as our nature reserve on the river Cam.
Our most powerful initiative was launched early this term. As a 1:1 iPad school our teachers are developing digital resources using iTunes U as a platform. In September we shared our iTunes U courses with the world, knowing they were tailored to the learning needs of our students, but hopeful that they may be of use to others.
So Tristram Hunt’s broadside is off the mark. Most independent schools pay more than lip service to outreach and his mode of delivery will only put the backs up of heads like myself who believe in the substance of what he says.
He needs a more granular approach. With the threat of withdrawing charitable status hanging over the independent sector like the sword of damocles, even if a school did not believe in this kind of outreach as a point of principle, it certainly would engage out of pragmatism. And for those few independent schools which tick as few boxes as possible, why not make this part of inspection so that the social responsibility dimension benefits the schools and its pupils? This would also give schools that do engage the recognition they deserve.
Implicit in this view is that state schools need what independent schools have to offer. It’s a patronising suggestion for my state sector colleagues who work hard to offer the best possible education for their pupils and who are certainly not looking to the local independent school to support their core business. If I were to suggest to the principal of Hills Road sixth-form college, Cambridge, the most successful state sixth-form college in England, that we can improve their Oxbridge preparation, I think she world be rightly offended and annoyed.
Partnerships are most effective where each side is making a contribution. Hunt is right to care about the state and independent sector working together, and to make sure this is happening. But currently he is wrong in how he is going about it.
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