How can Independent Schools engage with the Wider Community by Rudolf Eliott Lockhart

Posted on: 23 Nov 2012

by Rudolf Eliott Lockhart

Politicians of all colours seem to have developed a fondness for telling independent schools what sort of public benefit they ought to be providing. Most recently, Lord Adonis has criticised independent schools for failing to live up to the charitable principles of their founders and has suggested that the sole route to salvation for them lies in sponsoring academies. This is a curious state of affairs as the law on public benefit has recently been made clear: last year the courts upheld the Independent Schools Council’s (ISC) judicial review of the Charity Commission, underlining that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model of charitable engagement and that there is a wide variety of ways in which schools live up to their responsibility to reach out and serve those who do not pay fees.

So what sort of public benefit should independent schools be providing? What do the public think are the best ways for independent schools to engage with the wider community? We asked Populus to help find out and a survey was conducted this September.

41% of adults agreed that sponsoring academies or free schools was a good way for independent schools to contribute to their charitable work with only 13% disagreeing, meaning that there was a net agreement of +28 percentage points. On the face of it, this seems to show that there is public support for the Government’s desire for independent school involvement in the academies programme. What is striking, however, is that other forms of charitable work had a stronger endorsement.

The form of charitable work with most public support was offering bursaries to enable children from lower income backgrounds to attend independent schools: 59% agreed that this was a good contribution while only 7% disagreed, a net agreement of +52 points.

Close behind, there was a net agreement of +51 points on sharing sporting facilities with state schools. This might have been helped by the widespread coverage over the summer of the number of British Olympians who had attended independent schools. There was a +45 point net agreement on helping to prepare state school A-level pupils for entry to university and a +43 point net agreement on sharing lessons, knowledge and skills with local schools.

Support was not as strong for working with schools in poorer parts of the world to help them and their pupils with only a +26 net point agreement and for seconding teachers to work part time in state schools where there was only a +15 net agreement.

This seems to demonstrate two important points. First, there is widespread agreement that there are many different ways for independent schools to provide public benefit. Secondly, for all the political voices calling on independent schools to get more involved with academies, the public more strongly favour independent schools providing bursaries and sharing sporting facilities.

What is particularly interesting is seeing how these public perceptions of what independent schools ought to be doing compare with the reality of what independent schools are doing. In 2012 ISC undertook a census of our schools in which we asked about the charitable work that they were involved in. Looking at those ISC schools in England that are charities, 90% of them said that they offered bursaries to enable children from lower income families to attend independent schools; 70% share sporting facilities and hold joint sporting events with pupils from state schools; 40% work with local schools to share lessons, knowledge and skills; only 4% sponsor academies or free schools.

This shows that the two most widespread forms of public benefit work that independent schools undertake, offering bursaries and sharing sporting facilities, are the two types of charitable works that the public most strongly agree independent schools ought to be involved in.

There’s clearly a great deal to be gained from independent schools participating in the academies programme, but not all independent schools have the resources or expertise to sponsor an academy, and it is only one way among many of providing public benefit. This survey highlights that the public recognise the variety of approaches that schools can take in order to live up to their responsibility as charities.

This piece first appeared in the Populus Perspective blog.

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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.