A Reply to Lord Adonis
When Former Schools' Minister, Lord Adonis, attacked the independent sector in his interview in the Spring issue of Attain, many Heads felt the criticism was unfair. One was John Claughton, Chief Master of King Edward's School in Birmingham. He explains why Lord Adonis was wrong.
Thus spake Lord Adonis in his conversation with the Editor in the Spring edition of Attain. The same thoughts were reiterated by him in a recent lecture at the Lunar Society in Birmingham when he berated the King Edward VI Foundation for its pusillanimity in only sponsoring one academy. Given his goal of transplanting the DNA of successful independent schools in order to transform the weakest state schools, I can understand his disappointment. Perhaps the independent sector could have done more to respond to Lord Adonis' advances.
Even so, the involvement of independent schools with academies has been, in many cases, truly productive and enlightening. Lord Adonis may have listed only Wellington and Dulwich and Winchester, but he is too modest about his achievement: there are plenty more independent schools that would be positive about their experiences. Recently, I met Heads and staff from Wellington, Merchant Taylors', Haberdashers' Aske's, City of London School, University College School and Highgate, and none would regret their involvement with academies, even if progress has not been easy or quick or in straight lines. And, here in Birmingham, there is no doubt that at the King Edward VI Sheldon Heath Academy the name - and not only the name - of 'King Edward's' is raising the school's reputation and the pupils' aspirations. Perhaps, in the end, Lord Adonis has achieved more than he allows, and the independent sector has not been as useless as he suggests.
However, I still believe that Lord Adonis' narrative of the role of the independent sector in the great tale of academies is unfair. There were plenty of reasons beyond timidity and a lack of social responsibility that led the great majority of independent schools not to donate their DNA to the expectant Lord Adonis. One of them was #2m. When Lord Adonis' academy policy was first introduced, the requirement was that the 'sponsor' should contribute #2m to the new academy. Of course, as time went by the word 'sponsor' - like the word 'academy' - changed its meaning and the #2m wondrously disappeared, but, in the beginning, there weren't many schools that had #2m spare or, if they had #2m, fancied yielding it up to the uncertain prospect of an unbuilt academy. Indeed, the King Edward VI Foundation, after much wooing and much agonising, agreed to sponsor an academy, but not to find the #2m, despite its substantial endowment.
But it wasn't just the money. There were plenty of other grounds for doubt. As the last article explained, some schools found that the DCSF or local authorities weren't even keen. In Birmingham, the local education authority spent a long time being against academies, proposing a 'virtual academy', or 'schools with academy-like features' rather than the real thing. Other schools were deterred by the amount of executive time and effort that sponsoring an academy might take. In the King Edward VI Foundation, to do the full 'sponsor' job has taken two days a week for two years of the Chief Executive of the Foundation, a year of half-time secondment of a former HMC Head, and a truly extraordinary commitment of time and effort from a number of governors. There were - and are - very few single independent schools that could contemplate committing so much time and energy - let alone staff costs - to an uncertain prospect.
In the end, too, lots of other schools were satisfied in following a more conventional road to support state education. The majority of independent schools have relationships and partnerships with state schools - senior and junior - which they value and which work for them. One Head I spoke to said that what they did already through partnerships cost the school #250,000, a sum that he was quite happy to invest precisely because it is in his control to make things work. Many independent schools with rich programmes of this kind, and a deep and historic commitment to their communities, just didn't fancy the academy route - so they enacted their independence.
Then there was the political climate of the times, which seemed deeply suspicious of and, at times, outright hostile to independent schools. Lord Adonis' quest to capture the DNA of inde-pendent schools, in this context, didn't seem aligned with the spirit of the age. The Charity Commission was setting forth on its challenge to our charitable privileges and it wasn't clear whether sponsoring an academy would count for the purposes of charitable benefit: I'm not even sure I know now. The Government seemed to be unfailingly hostile to our success in university entry: the ghost of Laura Spence still haunted the occupant of Number 11 Downing Street.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the word that dare not speak its name: selection. The majority of independent schools proceed by academic selection and they do that because they believe that it is fundamental to their success. So schools had every right to wonder whether this particular DNA was really going to be that useful, not least because the original 'academies' were all failing schools - even if now 'converter academies' are all succeeding schools. So, there were plenty of serious, deeply considered, reasons, and not excuses, why independent schools did not respond to Lord Adonis' invitation in large numbers. It certainly wasn't because we lacked courage or any sense of our responsibilities to society. Most of our schools have a long tradition of contributing to society and we are doing all we can.
However, I don't think that even this defence of the actions - or inactivity of - independent schools is what matters. I am much more deeply concerned that Lord Adonis remains attached to the notion that the sponsorship of an academy was not only the best way, but also the only way for independent schools to make a contribution to this country's education. Why is his way the once-in-a-generation chance for all independent schools to do their bit? As I have suggested earlier, almost all independent schools of all kinds are engaged in their own ways with the world outside. And, for many schools, esp-ecially secondary schools, there is one great big, obvious, well-tried way in which independent schools could make a massive contribution to the education of this country, not by partnership or sponsorship, but by having boys and girls from ordinary or disadvantaged backgrounds in their schools. I don't know any Heads who want the wondrous opportunities of their schools to be private - why does Lord Adonis keep calling us 'private' schools? - or reserved as a privilege for the wealthy. That is why schools have invested so much money in means-tested places, not to keep the dog of the Charity Commission at bay. One brief commercial break dressed up as an example will suffice: the King Edward VI Foundation may have been reluctant to contribute #2m to an academy, but in King Edward's School and King Edward's High School for Girls it spends #2.5m a year on Assisted Places. 25% of pupils - 35 out of 130 - who arrive at King Edward's in 2011 will be here on Assisted Places of whom the majority will be here for free. And that doesn't even count 20 scholarships. However, there are plenty of similar schools with similar expenditure and aspirations and other schools doing all they can in this regard.
For the Government, an increase in accessibility may be a more appropriate goal than DNA transplantation. Lord Adonis may not be able to do much about this from opposition, but why cannot the Government give serious thought to means whereby less well-off pupils can come to independent schools for free? Recently a Conservative MP proposed that bright children on free school meals should be funded in our schools. Why not? I'd be keen, and so would many others in schools like King Edward's. Why doesn't the state hand over to independent schools the amount of money it costs to educate a child? We'd gladly supply the rest. Why can't our schools provide Sixth Form education for the most able in those hard subjects? Or why, at the very least, don't local education authorities publicise information about free places in our schools to the parents of children crossing over to secondary education?
There is an answer to all these questions, and that answer is simple - selection - that word again. No government can go down this road while selection is perceived as a 'Bad Thing'. That single word seems to be the biggest obstacle to the best collaboration. And yet, when it wasn't an obstacle, the Direct Grant system, or even the government Assisted Place scheme, provided exactly the kind of opportunity that Lord Adonis wants. We all know that hundreds of schools that are now independent were great engines of social mobility in those years: even as I write this piece I have met today 20 old boys who left the school in 1961. All came from ordinary backgrounds, most have had remarkable careers, often in science and service to society. Lots of MPs know that, too, because it is where they were educated, too.
Even Lord Adonis knew it once: in 1997, he (with Stephen Pollard) admitted, 'the direct-grant scheme succeeded, without any fanfare, in opening up many of the best independent schools to ability rather than wealth.' He refers to the 'sad irony' that the sacrifice of the direct-grant schools in 1975 'succeeded only in denying opportunity to many poor children.'
So, perhaps it isn't the independent sector that is guilty of being timid or not facing up to its responsibilities. Perhaps politicians need to have the courage to lay aside their anti-selection dogma so that independent schools could contribute to the education, social mobility and prosperity not by partnership, not by sponsorship, but by teaching able pupils whatever their backgrounds.