“cui bono?” – links between independent schools and the community

In his speech defending Roscius against a charge of parricide, the Roman lawyer Cicero suggests to the jury that, in order to determine criminal responsibility, one needs to pose the question “who benefitted?”. This principle has since become deeply ingrained in many a detective novel or crime drama. One of the saddening aspects of the recent dispute with the Charity Commission over ‘public benefit’ is that, by a twist of Ciceronian logic, efforts by independent schools to become – or I should say ‘remain’ – more involved in the local community are now portrayed cynically as motivated by fiscal self-interest. I would like to argue that the reason independent schools continue to work with their local community is that both sides have something to gain, and always have done. Such mutually beneficial links have little to do with finance or charity law, and everything to do with wider education for the benefit of all.  Inevitably, many of the examples I employ below are drawn from my own experience at Latymer Upper School, but I know that the same is true for schools across the country.

Independent schools are well placed to help maintained schools in areas where either facilities or subject expertise are in short supply. Latymer, for example, assists local primary schools with access to our swimming facilities, while our students visit schools to deliver lessons in Latin and debating, as well as acting as classroom assistants/mentors in Mathematics and Art. On Saturday, the school runs classes in STEM subjects for children from both primary and secondary schools in the area, as well as hosting the borough’s music school for 150 local children. All sixth formers undertake voluntary service, working in projects that cover a diverse range of needs including youth, the elderly, mental illness, homelessness, conservation, and food poverty.  The school has links with three local academies, whose inspirational leadership teams have transformed levels of attainment and aspiration in their schools; interestingly, all are very clear that (contra Lord Adonis’ exhortations) they would not like to be sponsored by an independent school, thank you very much. Their main interest is in joint events where pupils from their academies and our school can mix, debate, and share their ambitions for the future.

Clearly, our students benefit too from their activities in the community. For some, they gain relevant work experience for careers in education or medicine.  When I read the testimonials written by our sixth formers as they reflect on their involvement in community projects, certain common themes emerge. All were initially hesitant, feeling a bit ‘out of their depth’; however, by the end they felt they had gained increased confidence and an awareness of, in some cases, how privileged they are. Many used the phrase “made me appreciate what I have”; this is especially true of pupils who have been involved in projects overseas. You can’t learn powerful life lessons like this in a classroom.  Exposure to a far more diverse group of people than they would typically encounter in an independent school is hugely beneficial in educating the whole person. Interesting, then, that one of the strands of Mr Gove’s proposed A level reforms might be voluntary service.

By David Goodhew, Headmaster, Latymer Upper School