In my previous column, I argued the case for the Government to get behind co-funding bursaries for less advantaged children to attend independent schools.
This though, may prove to be a “slow burn”. So where else might further progress be made in independent schools working with the state to achieve positive outcomes? This, not only for the children already being educated by them, but for wider society?
Boarding school places for certain “looked after” and on the edge of being looked after children can provide life-changing opportunities. Local authorities should be given more freedom to explore this option further, with the high cost and low outcomes of more predictable and unadventurous avenues to care for and educated these children as the counterpoint.
As a former county council leader, I do not under-estimate the challenges around looked after children, the good intentions of the vast majority of those working in Children’s Services or the need to choose carefully who to offer this opportunity to: But when it works, it can work spectacularly well.
The testimonies of some of those who have had the experience can be seen in the publications of the national exemplar in this field, Royal SpringBoard a charity which undoubtedly has the appetite to expand the work they do. The Department for Education has started to make some positive moves in this direction with the recently announced expansion of its co-funding work with Royal SpringBoard and local authorities to cover some day school placements too. But further and faster – and decentralised – progress can and should be made.
“The eagerness of independent schools to help has not been seized upon as much as it should have by the state sector.”
Throughout the Covid crisis independent schools have demonstrated their value to wider society by making their facilities available for a whole range of support services, including providing dormitories for NHS staff, making masks and visors, donating laptops and with mentoring support for partner state schools.
This last type of work – those in independent education, teachers and pupils, mentoring and supporting the learning development of children from other schools – has the potential to not only continue as schools return, but to become part of the fabric woven into the nation’s educational tapestry.
We all know the mental health problems and educational attainment shortfalls that will result from the Covid crisis and the resulting absence from a structured school environment. We know these problems will fall disproportionately upon those young people who need that structure more than anyone else and have the most to lose.
“The independent school network in our country is an asset that is valued by others but one which we should value more ourselves.”
To help tackle this, the Government has announced its National Tutoring and Get Help with Technology programmes, but so far not sought to engage the independent sectors as fully as it should. Independent schools are eager, desperate almost, to do more in this area and to help with possibly the most meaningful kind of “levelling up” there can be.
This has not been seized upon as eagerly as I believe it should have been by the state sector. Whether that is ideological in some quarters – unions and educational theorists – or bureaucratic in others – the rather distant nature of Regional School Commissioners and the Department for Education in Whitehall – matters less than the need for it to be overcome.
The Schools Together Group – which is currently developing into the new School Partnerships Alliance (SPA) – is an ideal vehicle for this; it just needs the Department for Education to embrace the offer.
The independent school network in our country is an asset. It is an asset that is valued by others certainly but one which we should value more ourselves. (The large number of private schools now owned by the Chinese attests to how valued an asset it is, but this creates very serious problems of its own: home grown support could help fend off these challenging acquisitions.)
A blurring of the lines between state and independent education provision. A democratisation of access to excellence. A recognition that aspiration exists across all income levels. All these help us provide a bright future for our children. All could – and should – come through support and enthusiasm for what a broader independent sector could provide and thus not at the expense of ‘the squeezed middle’.