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Academy Challenged - 2 November 2012

By Matthew Burgess, General Secretary, Independent Schools Council

Barely a week passes without an ideologically-driven assault on independent schools. The ideologues tend to fall into two categories. There are those who find the very existence of schools outside the state sector repugnant to their worldview. Their aim is the abolition of independent schools (and they are creatively opportunistic in finding ways to advance their cause). Arguments about the fundamental right of parents to choose an education system for their child, or the wilful perverseness of vandalising a sector which is the envy of the world, fall on deaf ears.

And then there are those who would use the independent sector as a means towards their own ends. Most mainstream politicians would probably fall into this category, with Andrew Adonis one of the more thoughtful and prominent adherents of the class. ('Charity is their duty, not an optional extra', TES 2 Nov 2012) His commitment to improving educational opportunities for all is unquestionable. His vision has high profile supporters across the independent sector. And he professes to understand the importance of the sector’s DNA.

So why are we increasingly at odds with him?

Well, first of all there’s the unappealing charge he levels that our sector is outdated and our leaders isolationist. In this, he is simply wrong. The very independence of our sector allows our schools to reinvent and rejuvenate; to remain on the cutting edge of educational excellence. We are genuinely accountable to parents in a way that no school which charges fees to HM Treasury needs to be. A parent-funded school which no longer meets the needs of its parental body is doomed. Our sector may only have the capacity to educate 7% of children but it retains support from the majority of parents who aspire to the high standards of education, excellence in co-curricular provision and development of character which all contribute towards fulfilling each child’s potential. And it is, to say the least, a little contrary to paint a sector which funds almost £300 million of fee assistance for 40,000 poorer pupils each year – and where nine out of every ten schools is engaged in partnership activity with state schools or local communities – as isolationist.

Which brings us to his second charge: that “most such partnerships are ad hoc and pretty minor”. This is the point at which Adonis loses his intended audience. Was he not Schools Minister when the Independent State School Partnership scheme flourished, supporting an estimated 350 partnerships involving more than 1,500 schools across the sectors? Does he not recall his former colleague Estelle Morris preaching to the sector that “partnership in education is the way forward”; that she was "very pleased with the success of the independent/state partnership scheme so far”, particularly encouraged that “these partnerships are very much an indication that barriers which once existed between the state and independent sectors appear to be a thing of the past”? Surely he remembers his own words on the subject in 2008: announcing “new era for independent/state schools partnerships” which “have been a success to date, helping provide thousands of children with academic and pastoral opportunities”, he reaffirmed that “these partnerships are part of the wider vision” to equip highly educated people to lead the country in the fields of science, maths and languages.

All this, for less than the cost of funds overpaid in error to converting academies in a single year…

Adonis has to downplay the impact of partnerships he previously championed, in order to promote his specific vision of independent schools sponsoring academies. He takes sideswipes at individual schools in an effort to name and shame. Look to your founding charters, he says, and you will see that your historic benefactors had the sponsorship of academies in mind all along. Governors: do your duty.

This is soapbox politics, strawman sophistry. School governors – volunteers all – know their duties and discharge them assiduously. However hard Adonis strives to reinterpret historic charters, it strains all credibility that a particular model of engagement (sponsorship) with a particular form of state school (academy) is the only way that schools can remain true to mission. This is not to downplay the sector’s involvement with the academy movement, merely to recognise that there are more ways than one to carry out your calling.

Leaving the cheap shots to one side (doesn’t Adonis know about Eton and Winchester’s involvement with the London Academy of Excellence and Midhurst Rother College respectively?) there is more troubling ignorance here. Independent schools are not, on the whole, ancient richly-endowed foundations. ISC schools make up 80% of the sector, and the profile of a typical ISC independent school would be this: a co-ed school with around 350 pupils (of whom one quarter are from an ethnic minority and one third are receiving financial help with fees) and no external source of funding other than income from fees to pay all bills. It will have a bursary scheme to help those who can’t afford the fees, and a range of partnering activities with local schools for the mutual benefit of all pupils. It might, for example, host some joint lessons or run collaborative workshops for everything from creative writing and singing to science experiments. It might lend minibuses to local Scout groups; or give careers’ advice to 18 year olds; or support CCF groups in local schools; or have links with a school in a poorer economy overseas forged over many years. Its pupils will be drawn predominantly from the local area and the school will see itself as a fully functioning part of this community, not standing apart from it.

And this is Adonis’s apparent target, his solution to driving up standards across the country – that this school, and hundreds like it, must also “take complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of academies, staking their reputation on the offshoots’ success”.

The mystery is not why schools are reluctant to sign up for this agenda; it’s how so many have managed to do so already.

Matthew Burgess
General Secretary, Independent Schools Council

2 November 2012

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