Theresa May’s ‘country that works for everyone’

GSA president elect Charlotte Avery, also head of St Mary’s, Cambridge, responds to the Prime Minister’s recent announcements….


Theresa May has certainly given the whole of the education sector a challenge as a result of setting out her stall with regard to education on Friday, headed by the strapline “A country that works for everyone”.

As a faith based school, proudly a Christian school in the Catholic tradition, we were delighted to hear this sort of mission and vision from our new, female Prime Minister; a vision that is similar to that of Mary Ward (our school’s foundress, who worked to promote the rights and opportunities of women in the 17th century), and Mother Teresa in the 20th and 21st centuries (who worked to attend to the needs of the poorest of the poor and, recently canonised, remains a fantastic role model for our students).

So for me, much of what Theresa May outlined rings true.

She positively outlines that she believes universities that charge fees above £6,000 per annum ought to be doing to support school education: as one of four examples, she highlights the work of the University of Cambridge Primary School which is part of a major expansion of the university in the North West of the city – which I applaud.

Mrs May also praised faith schools – drawing particular attention to the good that Catholic schools contribute to wider society – and wishes to give the Church wider freedoms to establish new schools. She spoke about the long history of faith schools’ academic success. Her view that faith schools are popular with parents was evidenced at our own school when we achieved a remarkable 97% satisfaction rate among our parent body in our most recent ISI inspection, and Mrs May also stated that faith schools are more likely than other schools to be rated as good or outstanding; I am very proud of the fact that, under my auspices, St Mary’s School, Cambridge has never been rated below outstanding. Finally, Theresa May went on to say that Catholic schools are more ethnically diverse than other schools; this is certainly the case here in Cambridge where we celebrate 31 different nationalities in our school community. Indeed, one of the 12 Characteristics of a Mary Ward School, of which we are one of almost 200 schools, is ‘Embracing diversity’, and we aim to live out this and the other 11 characteristics in our daily lives.

Theresa May acknowledges the role that the independent sector plays, and must continue to play, in terms of supporting maintained sector schools. She goes on to list the sort of support that she envisages and I am proud to say that St Mary’s School, Cambridge already ticks all the boxes. She talks about ”supporting teaching in minority subjects such as further maths or classics, which state schools often struggle to make viable”. We have been running outreach Classical Greek classes for students from a local state school for two years and we were delighted to hear that the four students who took the Classical Greek GCSE (short course) this year achieved three A*s and one B. A Year 9 student from the same school also took part in the popular Cambridge Classical Association Latin and Greek Junior Reading competition along with our own students.

Mrs May suggests that “senior leaders become directors of multi-academy trusts”. I am delighted and privileged to be a Foundation Governor of St Bede’s Inter-Church School, the highly successful Christian state school in Cambridge. The relationship between both schools is so strong that last year our governing boards endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding between the two schools in recognition of a series of joint projects that we are or are aiming to work on together.

It was also suggested that independent schools should provide “greater access to their facilities”. In the past we have offered out our Hall, Food Technology room, and dedicated Art Centre facilities, as well as mini-buses, to our state sector friends and, once we have upgraded our Long Road sports facilities, we will be looking to share these state of the art facilities with our neighbouring maintained schools.

Theresa May’s final suggestion was that independent schools should be “providing sixth-form scholarships to a proportion of pupils in year 11 at each local school”. We are mindful of maintained schools which have their own Sixth Forms, but have been working increasingly closely with a local maintained school that doesn’t have a dedicated Sixth Form to offer generous scholarships and bursaries to any girl who wishes to join us for post-16 education. We used to offer STEM scholarships through the Ogden Trust Physics and Engineering bursaries, until the external part of the funding for this scheme was unfortunately withdrawn for this academic year. Undeterred, we now offer bursaries through the Springboard Foundation and have welcomed two students on substantial bursaries into our Sixth Form this year, and via another bursary scheme have offered a place to a student from Eastern Europe. Such schemes complement our already generous bursary provision for those who cannot afford to pay full fees.

However, there are two points to which I take exception.

The first is that she does not value the role of bursaries in independent schools as highly as she might. She is evidently keen to set up new or alternative provision schools, whether this be academies, new faith schools or grammar schools, whilst ignoring excellent provision in the independent sector, from which Lord Adonis (whom she quotes) was so keen to ‘borrow our DNA’ when he first mooted his vision for academies.

In many (but not all) areas a brand new school is not required; the need is for better opportunities within the current system. While investing more into the existing state system, to ensure universal high quality provision, the government could also use the per-pupil funding for state education in a more flexible fashion, by allowing it to be used at proven independent schools too. By doing so, bursary funds in independent schools would stretch far further, enabling us to educate a greater number of students who might not otherwise have been able to join us. Students from a very broad ability baseline achieve tremendous levels of progress at our school, leading to excellent examination results across the board; with investment in teachers, ours is a formula that can be replicated in the maintained sector.

A second, fundamental objection is her blanket condemnation that independent schools “have become more and more divorced from normal life”. The media brand this as Theresa May waging war on the sector, but this is not quite the case since she does acknowledge that “not every school is an Eton or a Harrow” and she praises the independent sector for “great schools with a lot to offer”. This acknowledged, Theresa May needs to understand that schools like St Mary’s School, Cambridge are well and truly embedded in real life. Our pastoral care is highly regarded in the sector as we work with girls and their parents on all manner of well-being and safeguarding concerns, with our feet firmly on the ground and an openness of embrace as we strive to support girls and their families through the myriad of complexities that make up girlhood and young adulthood in the 21st century.

I warmly invite Theresa May and Justine Greening to visit our school to see how the very best of independent, Catholic education is working to support young people, through bursary provision, sharing resources and through world class education.

Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s Cambridge

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