Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the Independent Schools Council and chairman of governors of the London Academy of Excellence, a state school in East London sponsored by independent schools. He was headmaster of Harrow and has taught at Eton.
With the current focus on social mobility, our critics will likely claim that independent schools are part of the problem rather than the solution. However, this ignores the significant work these schools are doing – and the work they want to develop – to help raise education standards for all children.
The Conservative Party has a slightly awkward relationship with independent schools. I have met many MPs who, perhaps understandably, are not fully aware of the part the independent sector plays in the national education system.
My message to them is: go and visit independent schools in your constituencies to find out first-hand the role these schools play within local communities.
This might include learning about their valuable role as employers, helping to sustain local economies; how they provide transformational boarding school places to disadvantaged and vulnerable children, those who are looked-after and those on the edge of care; and what they are doing to offer more full bursaries to pupils who have been on free school meals. The larger independent schools, in particular, are working to take as many children on greatly reduced or nil fees as they can, widening access. Many headteachers were themselves in receipt of a free place at Direct Grant schools in the 1970s. They came from low-income families and are keen to see their schools return to being the engines of social mobility they were before the Direct Grant was abolished.
A visit to an independent school will, no doubt, also include hearing about successful partnerships with state schools. Partnerships are under-reported but, when carried out effectively by schools choosing to work together to achieve clear and specific aims, have the potential to unlock new educational experiences for all involved.
Since 1997, I have been engaged by various governments to work up independent and state sector partnership projects. So I know that when governments and oppositions talk about getting independent schools to do more to ‘help the state sector’, they are rarely talking about the great mass of independent schools. They are really referring to a relatively small group of larger schools with a reputation for academic success – something which was acknowledged in the last Conservative manifesto when it referred to ‘100 leading schools’ becoming involved with state school sponsorship.
However, it’s important to understand that these large schools are not typical. The average size of the 2,300-odd independent schools in the UK is about 300 pupils and they are mostly small junior schools. Approximately 500 of them are special schools for children and young people with special educational needs (and less than half are academically selective).
The topic of state school sponsorship is an interesting one. In 2012, I helped to set up a state school for sixth formers in the London Borough of Newham – the London Academy of Excellence (LAE) – supported by six independent schools as well as HSBC.
Situated on the border of Newham and Tower Hamlets, two of the most deprived local authority areas in the UK, LAE’s intake is fully reflective of the area’s diverse social and ethnic mix. More than two-thirds of students are from families that haven’t sent a child to university before and more than a third are eligible for free school meals.
LAE is now one of the highest performing state schools in the UK. In 2017, 60 per cent of A-level grades were A*/A and 99 per cent were A*-C; for the third year running, LAE was placed in the top one per cent of schools for value-added, an achievement which earned it the accolade ‘Sunday Times Sixth Form College of the Year’; and applications so far for entry in 2018 are well over 3,000.
What exactly did the independent schools do to help, you might ask? They seconded staff without charge, and this helped reduce the cost of both teaching and financial management. They provided experienced teachers who could share teaching resources (many of the LAE teachers were quite new to the profession) and train-up LAE teachers. They checked that the standards expected by LAE staff were right – that pupils who were expected to aim for top grades were indeed working at that level. They shared their experience of Oxbridge preparation and tips for completing UCAS forms successfully.
It was clearly a successful formula, because last year a second LAE started, this time in Tottenham and supported by ten independent schools.
If politicians and influencers were to sit down with the independent and state schools involved in successful sponsorship projects to simply ask what works and what doesn’t, they would learn a great deal. These are conversations we want to, and should, be having.
Virtually all independent schools are now fully committed to independent-state school partnerships. Not only do all of the young people involved benefit, so too do the staff and teachers taking part – who themselves are the focus of partnerships which support training opportunities.
Our schools very much want to play a more active role in tackling the issues around teacher recruitment and retention. We firmly believe we could do more.
Within the past couple of years, we have seen the green shoots of progress, having partnered with our colleagues in the state sector to help develop pioneering training schemes in shortage subject areas. We’re confident that both the National Maths and Physics school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) and the National Modern Foreign Languages SCITT will grow, and believe – given the opportunity – independent schools could do more to encourage new talent to join the teaching profession.
Every school, regardless of sector, wants to do all it can to help young people learn and develop. By bringing independent and state school leaders to the table with politicians in order to sustain an open dialogue about how to raise education standards, we all stand to learn, and crucially, our children and young people stand to gain.