Ever since he became Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron has faced vocal criticism that his public school education renders him distant from ordinary people, a world apart from the less affluent. These taunts – although blatantly unfair - have shone a harsh spotlight on the independent sector, reinforcing stereotypes about the schools we run and the values we promote.
So it was pleasing that, during the course of his conference speech yesterday, the Prime Minister felt able to tout his time at an independent school. It was also good to hear him say that he wanted every child to experience the same standard of education, and pledge to spread around privilege.
But perhaps of more significance for our sector was something else Cameron touched on: the role aspiration can play in strengthening a country, and just how critical it is for progress. The PM’s desire to see Britain become an “aspiration nation” comes at a time when we face tough questions about our commitment to broadening horizons. The Charity Commission’s decision to relax aspects of the public benefit test has prompted doubts about whether we are living up to our charitable missions, and many of us have been urged to do more to sponsor state academies.
As the head of an independent school that has long prioritised the issue of access, I welcome the Prime Minister’s call to action, and hope it spurs greater interest in the work of my counterparts who are striving to bring valued investment into the state sector.
However, there are many different ways in which independent schools can fulfil the goal the Prime Minister has set. Here at Rugby we have sought for many years to widen opportunity for young people, most notably through our bursary scheme, the Arnold Foundation. The Arnold Foundation was founded in 2003 to provide fully funded places, subject to means testing, to pupils who would benefit from a boarding education but who cannot afford the fees.
Unlike some other schemes, the Arnold Foundation does not advertise for pupils, and does not ‘cherry-pick’ the brightest from the maintained sector. Instead it selects candidates by working in partnership with educational charities in deprived communities who share Rugby’s commitment to raising aspirations.
Most Arnold Foundation pupils come from challenging backgrounds, perhaps from a single parent family where they may have to contribute to running the household, or cramped and noisy accommodation where it is difficult to study. But they all come from families without the material resources to enable them to reach even higher. Boarding at Rugby liberates them from these constraints and provides them with the support they need to reach their full potential.
We understand pastoral care is critical to a bursary scheme’s success and that support must be extended to the pupils’ families. Foundation pupils are mentored by an older pupil and supported by five dedicated tutors, while a parent coordinator helps ensure their families are able to embrace everything Rugby has to offer.
The Arnold Foundation is a bursary scheme that is achieving much more than simply helping out with school fees. Independent research by the National Foundation for Education Research has found the benefits of attending Rugby for Arnold Foundation pupils include improved social skills and self-esteem, development of leadership skills, enhanced social skills, and increased confidence. For some, the Foundation has been an opportunity to break free from negative cycles such as gang culture, financial pressure, and a culture of low educational attainment.
But one school alone cannot break down all of society’s barriers. Our educational institutions must act together if this approach is to truly make a difference. To this end, my school has forged a unique partnership with the Coventry Diocesan Board of Education which is helping to raise aspirations in 70 schools across Coventry, Warwickshire and Solihull. Children from deprived backgrounds in the West Midlands are benefitting as we share facilities, pass on best teaching practice and encourage Rugby community members to get involved as school governors.
Additionally, several members of the independent sector are now joining forces to form a national bursary foundation closely modelled on Rugby’s scheme. The SpringBoard Bursary Foundation aims to place a large number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds at state and independent boarding schools, while transforming the scope and effectiveness of their outreach programmes. Working together in this way will enable us to make a difference in the lives of countless young people, and help make Mr Cameron’s land of aspiration a reality.
Patrick Derham, Head of Rugby School