There are some tough examinations coming up in 2024. And I’m not talking about ones your pupils will be sitting.
The General Election will play out against a backdrop of controversial personal and political issues which will throw an ever-sharper spotlight on independent schools. As places where young people not only learn but live their lives, they are being drawn into what has been referred to as the “the culture wars.” Their perceived privilege has already drawn them unwillingly into political controversy.
Notably, the upcoming campaign has already been referred to as the culture wars election, with a recent Ipsos poll showing that voters believe politicians are exploiting differences in opinion as an electoral tactic. Amongst the “wedge” issues being debated are privilege, social mobility and gender, all of which are highly relevant to the sector.
“Perceived privilege has already drawn independent schools into political controversy.”
One key aspect of this is, of course, the pledge by the Labour Party to put VAT on school fees if elected; a policy commitment which in itself means the sector has found itself becoming a lightning rod for strongly held political opinions.
As well as debates around elitism and the education gap, our experience at Alder suggests that another reason for the mounting attention is changes in the behaviour of pupils, parents and journalists since the pandemic.
It’s a topic we’ve recently described in more detail, but in short, patterns of pupil misbehaviour appear to be changing, as are the demands and expectations of parents. At the same time, journalists are under various pressures which can get in the way of balanced and responsible reporting.
This leaves schools in an unenviable position, trying to educate wisely and carefully in the face of varying opinions across the school community, while pressure groups and journalists circle, looking for a story. We have seen various examples of pretty thin “stories” getting prominence, and journalists on “fishing trips”, hoping to lure unsuspecting schools into answering one of those “when did you last kill your grandmother” questions, for which any answer will provide a headline.
“Journalists have tried to lure schools into answering one of those ‘when did you last kill your grandmother?’ questions.”
So what can schools, individually and as a sector, do to minimise the risks?
The first thing to say is that great care and professional judgement is needed when responding to any external questions about culture wars topics, as well as up-to-date knowledge of what is happening in newsrooms and other schools.
Culture war or no culture war, it’s always advisable to have clear channels and policies for handling journalists’ inquiries, including outside of school hours, recognising the often very tight deadlines set by media outlets.
In some cases, it will be desirable to defer to a relevant sector body to ensure that your school doesn’t become the centre of attention. In others, it may on balance be best to ignore media requests, especially if an incoming enquiry bears the hallmarks of the aforementioned “fishing expedition”.
“In some cases, it will be desirable to defer to a relevant sector body.”
More broadly, recognise that there are an increasing number of culture wars topics on which a school could be exposed. Make sure that you have an open-minded, careful approach to these, as well as clear, regularly-reviewed policies around these, taking advice from well-regarded sources and recognising that there will be a diversity of opinion on the subjects.
This won’t mean you can avoid anyone taking offence or choosing to create a narrative about your school, but it should make you less of an easy target, and means that you have a position to defend if needed.
Remember too that it’s not just journalists you need to be aware of. Anything you say, internally or externally, has the potential to find a broader audience, whether through journalists, social media or however else. In particular, your internal communications should be give as much attention as your external communications, especially on tricky topics, given that they can either leak, or cause an unexpected flare-up in your community.
“Anything you say, internally or externally, has the potential to find a broader audience.”
It is also vital not to forget that schools with charitable status operate under restrictions regarding what can be said and done in the political arena. Schools will be aware that it is important to avoid appearing to give support to a political party.
This doesn’t mean charities can’t comment on policies, but school leaders must be mindful of the guidance from their nation’s charity regulator. The reputational risk of being accused by a campaigner of breaching these restrictions is potentially as great as the risk of being found guilty, so schools should be able to account for any public statements they make.
Most of in the sector realise that the media and political landscape looks particularly risky for private schools between now and the next election. Ultimately, everyone working for or sending their children to an independent public school deserves reassurance that the school’s leadership has a plan for navigating it.