Revolution amongst private schools?

09 Oct 2007 BBC News Online

Birkenhead High School pupils
Birkenhead High School is the latest to opt for Academy status
Is there a major revolution stirring among England's independent schools?

Have they rediscovered their social conscience or are they just finding new ways to survive in cash-strapped times?

This week Birkenhead High School became the fifth independent, fee-charging school to announce its intention to become a state-funded city academy.

Like all schools taking this route, this involves abandoning two of the most characteristic features of independent schools - fees and academic selection. However, the school will retain its independence in all other matters.

With just five defections from the 1,280 schools within the solid ranks of the Independent Schools Council this is hardly a mass exodus.

Nor have we yet seen any such moves from the famous public schools from the affluent south-east of England, where the middle-classes still seem able to afford ever-rising fees.

The schools that are becoming academies are substantial, highly-academic schools with long traditions and good facilities
The idea of Eton or Harrow becoming academies still seems a long way off.

And yet, the schools that are doing so are substantial, highly academic schools with long traditions and good facilities.

And other stirrings are afoot too. As the Schools Minister, Lord Adonis, told the Head Masters' and Mistresses' Conference (HMC) last week, more than 20 independent schools are now involved with academies, either as sponsors or partners.

And, according to figures from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think-tank, 12 others have crossed over from the independent sector to the state sector since 2001. Most of these are faith-based schools that have become "voluntary aided" within the state system.

Backward step?

Back in 1997, when Labour came to power, there was a lot of muttering and suspicious glances from the independent sector. Schools feared an attack on their charitable status and suspected a Labour government would do all it could to attack them.

As it happened the independent schools had little to fear. Far from being savaged, they have been gently seduced.

Lord Adonis has very astutely played on their social conscience. His own background means he is well placed to do so.

As he told the HMC, as a boy from a very humble home his life was "transformed" when he won a scholarship to a private boarding school.

Harrow School
The idea of Harrow School becoming an Academy seems unlikely

His school had been founded by a wealthy philanthropist with the express purpose of getting vulnerable boys and orphans out of London's East End and into a healthy, academic environment in Oxfordshire.

And, of course, the origins of many of today's top fee-charging schools were rooted in very similar charitable aims. Sometimes those origins seem to have been forgotten.

Take William Hulme's Grammar School in Manchester. It has abandoned its fees of £8,000 a year to become an academy.

It too was founded as a charity and, indeed, until the mid-1970s it was a direct grant school, receiving state subsidies in return for admitting poorer children without fees.

Critics of the independent sector may see these changes as a backwards step, returning to the direct grant school system that was abolished by a Labour government over 30 years ago.

Or they may see it as another version of the assisted places scheme, which Labour abolished in 1997, and which allowed bright but poor children to get into independent schools.

They argue that these approaches are just a narrow ladder of opportunity for a few bright, but impoverished, children, with the unfortunate side effect of creaming-off the most able pupils from state schools.


But I think something more fundamental is happening here. The key difference between both direct grant status and assisted places and the new move towards either academy or voluntary-aided status is that, with these latest developments, schools have to abandon fees and wholesale academic selection.

That is a big difference. It might just help to break the very common misconception that, somehow, educational excellence is something that can only be achieved by financial and academic selection.

Of course, some concerns remain about the freedom that academies and voluntary-aided schools have to run their own admissions.

As the IPPR points out, research suggests that schools which control their own admissions, especially faith schools, tend to be less representative of their communities than other schools.

Nevertheless, it seems that an important shift is happening here. The state versus private education debate has long been over-simplified. It is tempting to see them as absolute opposites when the reality is much more blurred.

If more independent schools looked back to their origins they would perhaps be even more determined to reach beyond their current clientele of academically able, financially well-off families.

They will argue that they already offer bursaries and scholarships to children from poorer homes. Yet, with some exceptions, they mostly offer these to pupils who are at the top end of the ability range and from supportive and motivated families.

If some of them are now willing to educate all in their local community, irrespective of ability or financial means, then that does look like the start of a revolution.

Could it be the beginning of the end for England's divided school system, which remains one of the most hierarchical in the world?

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