The Uses of Newspeak
Unnoticed by many, the Government recently launched a consultation into the 'definition of an independent school'. What was the purpose and why did it need defining? Michael St John Parker investigates.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'
It may be news to some of those who work in, or support, independent schools that 'In November 2006 the DfES launched a consultation on a proposal to provide further guidance [further to what ? - but let that pass] as to what constitutes full time [sic] education in independent schools'. So at least we were informed by a circular dated August 2007, emanating from the Independent Education and Boarding Team of what had by then become the DCSF. The same circular announced, whether in pride or disappointment it is impossible to say, that '179 people responded, including home educators, voluntary and private organisations and local authorities.' Perhaps most of us were too busy stuffing ourselves with mince-pies and other such self-indulgences, as 2006 turned into 2007, to pay proper attention to the DfES's pleas for 'guidance'. However, despite - or even because of - the paucity of responses to its initial overtures, the Department felt emboldened to press ahead with a further stage of consultation, scheduled this time for the August /September period of 2007, a season when, as is well known, school people are most likely to be alert and prompt in attending to important missives from Headquarters. We have not so far been informed how many of the independent sector's opinion-formers have answered this second call to arms; but, fortunately for the rest of us, the eagle-eyed guardians of our interests at ISC have ridden forth, armed cap-a-pied, and delivered a finely-crafted manifesto to the bureaucrats of Whitehall. Read all about it on the ISC website!
And what, for heaven's sake, is all this about? We must, with whatever feelings of regret, put aside any notion that the Department's earnest and repeated inquiries are motivated by a scholarly passion for philosophical accuracy (I say, Carruthers, what exactly do you think F.J. Ayer would have meant by the expression 'full-time education in an independent school'?). The mundane, even grubby, reality is to be found in the proposals which formed the basis of the second phase of consultation. They run as follows: 'We... have concluded that the best approach is to adjust the definition of an independent school so as to specify that an independent school is the main organiser of a programme of education for children of compulsory school age, unless provision is excluded through regulations... We would propose that regulations exclude:
- schools maintained by a local authority;
- non-maintained special schools;
- temporary provision e.g. summer schools;
- any institutions providing less than 12.5 hours per week tuition (primary) and 15 hours (secondary) for individual children;
- further education colleges; hospital schools;
- home tutorial services organised by a local authority;
- education supervised or delivered by parents.'
There is, of course, an elephant in this room, and it is the Government's Academy programme. The Academies are certainly 'main organiser[s] of a programme of education for children of compulsory school age', and they are, equally certainly, not liable to be excluded from independent status by any of the regulations proposed above. Can it be that the Department is trying to rewrite the definition of independence so that it will cover this new breed of school?
The Government's publicity for Academies sometimes seems to imply that they will offer children who are fortunate enough to attend them the quality of an independent-type schooling without the pain, for parents, of paying fees. Some in the independent sector have found the insinuation flattering; but perhaps we should be wary of bureaucrats speaking with forked tongue.
The ISC clearly distrusts the motivation behind the Department's proposals. Their submission to the consultation emphasises, with forensic thoroughness, the Academies' inability to control their admissions of pupils, or the scale of their funding, and the constraints under which they must work in matters of curriculum and staffing - all of which should be regarded, says the ISC, as touchstones of the truly independent school. (Actually, the ISC's case might have been made more cogent still if it had contained a recognition of the fact that some of the first Academies to be established really did have Funding Agreements which granted them significant and valuable degrees of freedom, unlike the more recent foundations which, in truth, are state schools in everything but name; it is the Government's surreptitious retreat from its early liberal position that most clearly reveals its true intentions.)
Only the most inveterate optimist would imagine that protests such as that of the ISC could derail a Whitehall proposal commencing, as this does, with the words 'We have concluded...', so we must assume that the definition of an 'independent school' will shortly be reshaped to suit the Government's requirements. We face a fait accompli. The notion of independence will be devalued as a result - but something more serious than devaluation may be lurking in the wings.
There are at present two sorts of independent school, those with charitable status and those without; both are funded by the fees paid by their clients. The group with charitable status is much the larger, and leads the field nationally in terms of quality; the costs of this group, and therefore the fees charged by its members, are much higher than those of the non-charitable schools. If a significant number of schools which are entirely funded by the state is in future to be designated as 'independent', the group with charitable status is certain to come under mounting pressure to review the basis of its operations. Some fee-paying parents, at least, can be expected to echo the siren voices which urge the attractions of statesupported Academy status; on the other wing will be those who point to the increasing cost of qualifying for a charitable status which was once a privilege but is now coming to resemble a burden cynically imposed by a hostile state.
There are ominous signs that this polarisation of opinion within the sector, with its potential for consequent drift into either clientage or commercialism, is precisely what Government is trying to bring about. When Lord Adonis, speaking at the 2007 annual meeting of HMC, urged the merits of the Academy programme as an exercise in educational philanthropy, he was perceived by many as, at best, a stalking horse for a Stalinist, or rather Brownite, agenda of state control; this may have been unfair, both to the noble Lord and to the schooling of the children whose cause he was advocating, but the result was distrust. Meanwhile the Charity Commission looks increasingly like a politicised institution, leaking minatory noises about the way in which it proposes to evaluate the charitable activities of independent schools, to the growing alarm of governors who feel that they are facing the prospect of regulation under threat of unprecedented penalties.
It would be nice if we could write off these moves as the last, feeble convulsions of a dying regime - and indeed there is a certain elderly peevishness about the Government's style these days. But there are years yet to go before the next General Election, and one should never underestimate the damage that can be inflicted by the spitefulness of old age.