Ranked up to three years behind parts of the Asia Pacific by the time pupils reach the age of 15, the British school system has become something of a basket case internationally. If a nation’s economic success is dependent on an educated and highly skilled workforce, the UK is going to become more, rather than less, dependent on immigrants.
There is, however, one shining light in our school system. I am referring, of course, to our increasingly beleaguered independent sector. It is a light that needs to be allowed to shine ever more brightly. Instead, that light is in danger of being dimmed or, in some cases of being switched off altogther, as a direct consequence of government policy. The successful private school sector is under ever growing pressure to remedy the failure of successive governments to improve the maintained sector.
At this week’s conference of independent secondary school head teachers, the chairman, Mike Buchanan, warned the Government that, “independent and state schools cannot make our relationships work with a gun pointing at our heads.” The Prime Minister has threatened that private schools with charitable status will lose that status, and the tax breaks worth around £700 million, associated with it, if they do not work to improve state schools. The support required is likely to take the form of setting up a non-selective school, backing an underperforming academy or admitting more pupils from deprived backgrounds.
Most, if not all, independent schools are already making significant charitable contributions that offset the tax benefit of charitable status. In particular, this takes the form of bursaries and various ‘outreach’ programmes. Sharing of facilities and ‘lending’ staff to teach some lessons in state schools is also common. In recent years we have, also, seen leading independent schools sponsoring academies and free schools. The outstanding London Academy of Excellence, a free sixth form college in Newham, is a prime example.
Given the efforts being made on a voluntary basis, it is unnecessary and unacceptable for independent schools to feel that the element of compulsion now planned is equivalent to having a gun head put to their collective heads. It is also unwise. If the threats continue and are backed by statute, the loss of charitable status may have to be accepted and offset by reducing or withdrawing bursaries and other assistance currently provided. This is already being widely discussed and not least by those many private schools that may offer an excellent education but only just manage to keep their heads above water, financially.
All of this will come as good news for that rich ‘elite’ of parents in countries with economies that compete with our own. More places will be available in UK independent schools for their children! Pupils in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, may be at the summit of educational attainment internationally but when it comes to the ‘crème de la crème’ of schooling many of their most well-off parents are looking to have their offspring educated at UK private schools. Such is the demand and popularity of these British schools that many have opened outposts abroad and not least in the Asia Pacific. British private schools overseas are contributing around £1 billion to the UK economy. They are an internationally admired brand of excellence that does much to raise the general profile of the UK overseas. At a time of Brexit what could be more important?
The coercion being exerted by this Government on the independent sector is ill-considered and misguided. Furthermore, it will be counter-productive. It is likely to make some private schools more exclusive and force others to close altogether and, thereby, increase pupil numbers pressure on the maintained sector.
Instead of penalising independent schools, we should celebrate the fact that one part of our school system, at least, is world beating. State schools need to imitate private schools as far as is possible rather than being a burden on them, learn from them rather than dragging them down. In that context, the independent sector will be free to remain willing and effective partners in raising the performance of state schools.