Last week, the Independent Schools Council published its annual census. On publication, Julie Robinson, ISC Chief Executive, said “The existence of a private sector eases pressure on class sizes in state schools, and saves the taxpayer £3.5billion each year”. The census also reported a rise in both the number of partnerships projects between state and independent schools, and provision of means-tested fee assistance increasing to a value of more than £420million.
The census focused on the relationship between the independent and state sectors – unsurprising perhaps when you consider that Labour’s 2017 manifesto committed to ending independent schools’ VAT exemption, which has been questioned previously by the Conservative party too. A quick look at the Schools Together website (the partnership programme delivered by the ISC) highlights the range of existing relationships: literacy support in Bristol; science workshops in York; swimming in Carshalton – there are plenty of examples of independent schools giving their time and resource to state school peers.
While the increase in partnerships and bursaries for lower income families is welcomed, NSN Director Luke Tryl responded to the census by saying “still only a very small minority of children from disadvantaged backgrounds receive support from the independent sector” and called on independent schools – that operate as charities and receive the associated tax benefits – to commit their support to free school applicant groups across the country. Why? Because where free schools have been established by, or are linked to, independent schools, the students have access to a number of opportunities that would probably be out of their reach otherwise.
Take the London Academy of Excellence, which opened in Stratford in 2012.The school was established by eight independent schools to increase the levels of university entry in the borough and wider area; six independent schools – Brighton College, Caterham School, Eton College, Forest School, Highgate School, University College School – are partnered with LAE, providing staff, expertise and governance support, as well as a pupil-linking ‘buddy’ system. LAE delivers a curriculum which is focused on helping Newham sixth formers gain entry to the most prestigious universities, by only offering the most academically rigorous subjects and having an ethos of hard-work and high attainment. In 2015, the Sunday Times awarded the school with the title of 'Sixth-form College of the Year', followed by an Outstanding Ofsted judgement in 2017. Last year, 61% of all grades were A*/A, with an average grade of ‘A’ well above the national and local average (C).
In 2017, a second LAE model was opened in Tottenham. As the principal sponsor, Highgate School provides five members of the total teaching staff, as well as assisting with wider administrative, pastoral and management support, while eight other leading independent schools share their expertise and teaching staff. LAE Tottenham also benefits from a relationship with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, which provides financial support and the school site, Lilywhite House, which is owned and managed by the football club.
Eton College has also supported a free school in its immediate community. Holyport College, a state boarding free school in Windsor opened in 2014. The school replicates the academic aspirations and exemplary pastoral care provided by Eton College and aims to be of particular benefit to the most disadvantaged, accommodating a significant number of children in care.
And why do they do it? Having worked at a free school established by independent schools, I often heard people ask this question. Some ask cynically, thinking independent schools are motivated by tax breaks and believing themselves to be superior to their state counterparts. The majority would be more optimistic, recognising a breadth of positive impact that might come from providing those from a disadvantaged background with the same opportunities as those more fortunate. A real offer of social mobility.
We know independent schools can find the capacity to do it, have the capabilities to do it, and that senior leaders and teachers in state schools welcome the opportunity to collaborate. Which leads to the question I heard more than any other: “why aren’t more independent schools doing more of these things?”.
When I worked at LAE, I wasn’t sure of the answer.
Since then, LAET has been set up and I’ve visited Holyport College and more so than ever, I find myself asking the same thing.