Politicians love telling independent school heads what to do, and the latest central command is that we should all sponsor failing state schools to become academies. Independent School DNA is apparently the ‘magic bullet’ which will solve the ills of underperforming schools, and drive up educational standards. Such an approach is simplistic and patronising and I can see why it irritates many state school heads.
The sharing of best practice between schools is to be encouraged. However, this is a far cry from the suggestion that one type of school knows best. The Perse has nearly 400 years’ experience of educating talented children in an academically selective environment but this does not equip us with the expertise to teach mixed ability students in a challenging social setting. We can and do help where our experience is relevant, for example in gifted and talented programmes, and through our primary partnership programme. However to go beyond this and suggest some universal independent school solution to the problems of the maintained sector would be wrong. Schools underachieve for complex reasons; some to do with leadership and management, and some to do with the challenging nature of the communities they serve. Brand association between a leading independent school and an academy may create media headlines and a temporary feel good factor. However, real solutions to educational underachievement require more fundamental changes including different approaches to parenting, more positive role models for youngsters, and the establishment of good study habits and high expectations from an early age.
Independent schools are successful in part because of their independence. We have the freedom to ignore government dictats and concentrate on what works best in our individual situations. We have the flexibility and resources to respond to the needs of parents and pupils. We can think outside the bureaucratic box and innovate in imaginative and relevant ways. The very part of our DNA that could be most useful to the state is our independence, but the ‘I’ word is not popular in Whitehall. Academies may be free of local authority control, but they are still on the Westminster leash. Moreover academies and free schools, created by Acts of Parliament can be removed by the same measure with a change of government. This is exactly what happened with Grant Maintained Schools in the 1990s which were the last Conservative government’s experiment with quasi independence. True independence insulates schools from the policy upheaval of changing governments and the educational disruption that goes with it.
In trying to push independent schools into sponsoring academies, government should appreciate that in challenging economic times many independent school parents are under great financial pressure. Such parents already pay for a state education they don’t use through taxation, and to ask them to pay again through higher independent school fees to finance academy sponsorship is a big ask. Independent schools have a duty to serve their communities, but they must also look after the needs of their fee paying parents and pupils.