Don’t blame the private sector for state education failings

Returning from the GSA conference last week gave me much food for thought. A busy week saw a range of key issues brought into the spotlight both inside and outside of the conference and for me perhaps none more so than those raised by Tristram Hunt’s speech. It had much to commend it – it was after all an acknowledgement of how education in this country is failing so many of its young people and a determination to give children the tools they need to fulfil their potential are goals that all of us involved in education share. However, looking to the private education sector as both the cause and the potential saviour of a damaged system does little to address the root cause of the decline in education standards.

The Sutton Trust has recently raised similar concerns to ours: that the most able pupils in state education need more help to reach their potential. There is no unhelpful mention of the state/private ‘divide’ – instead the trust rightly puts the onus on the government to put in place national support programmes for these students, such as the now-defunct ‘gifted and talented’ scheme, to enable them to achieve more and to reach higher education.

Accusations of elitism and privilege are nothing new to the independent sector. Nobody in private education would argue that improving accessibility to a good education for talented children regardless of their background should be a focus and most schools I know have been working at this (with significant success) for decades now. Of course we can always do more and, as a Head, I am clearly aware of our important position of social responsibility.

The charitable aims of the School remain at the heart of our activity. Independent schools are not profit-making businesses answering to shareholder demands. At Headington, any surplus generated through a judicious use of resources, such as our successful holiday letting programmes, is used to invest in bursary programmes. Labour’s plans to increase taxation for the independent sector wouldn’t penalise us – it would punish those families that require support and would inevitably lead to an increase in school fees across the board. Before you know it, access to private schooling becomes more expensive and less accessible to the hard working parents – doctor, nurses and teachers, and many from the public sector – that send their children here.

In his speech, Hunt talked about providing our teachers to state school, but I struggle to see how this would work. School fees are based on staff costs and parents pay for what is lacking in the state sector – even though they have already paid for it though their taxes – and would not expect that resource to now be taken away from them. The Government should instead be looking at how to recruit and retain the best teachers in the state sector.

He also talked about running joint extra-curricular programmes and sharing expertise to help state school students get in to university. We already share many an initiative with the state sector including enrichment activities, orchestral days, language days, etc. Only recently we were able to share our professional theatre facilities when we again hosted the Shakespeare Schools Festival. We run many joint Sixth Form activities too. We enjoy close links with the universities and are very keen to share the information and resources at our fingertips.

The independent sector is ever keen to share its expertise but this idea of an elite club is only perpetuated by the government’s failure to implement in its own system the successful working models that it sees in the independent sector. The onus is on the government to bridge the gap – not us. We share our knowledge and resources, but we should not feel bad for the very high standards we maintain – this is the result of a huge amount of passion and hard work. It is not for us to lower our standards but for the government to raise theirs.

Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School

 

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