Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

No place like home

No place like home

The other day I read a report from the Independent Schools’ Council, which is the umbrella group for the sector. It was giving a rundown of the background for independent schools as we approach a General Election. Specifically it concentrated on the Conservative party.

In the past, whatever one’s personal politics, we might have reckoned that the Tories were the ones with an instinctive support for independent schools (as for grammar schools, academic selection and the like). Nowadays, though, we find the Tories as ambivalent about independent education as Labour and the Lib Dems remain (broadly) hostile. The piece referred to an intelligent article on the website Conservative Home (click here: http://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2015/02/the-tories-must-not-abandon-independent-schools.html?dm_i=14DE,37Y2X,5PBA2A,BJ65Y,1).

In truth, it contains no surprises. Nowadays Tory ministers are busy saying that they are concentrating on the state schools that educate 93% of our children: so they should.  

Nonetheless, as the writer Andrew Gimson asks, why are the Conservatives so embarrassed by this country’s independent schools that they seldom defend them.

His answer is (rightly) harsh about those Tories who will even deny their own past and upbringing in order to appear not to “take sides” - as if there really is a for-or-against argument going on. As he asks: “What Tory candidate (other than Boris Johnson) expresses a proper pride in having been educated at the great schools of England?”

I don’t need to expand on that: you can read it for yourself. Gimson also returns to the suggestion, first floated by Matthew Parris, taken up by Tim Montgomery, supported by Sir Anthony Seldon of Wellington College and also (with an analogous scheme) by Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust, that independent schools should take 25% of their intake as “scholarship boys and girls, funded by the state on a means-tested basis”.

Gimson reckons a lot of independent schools would object: I’m not sure that we would. But is it a real question that our sector has to grapple with? Sadly, policy-makers are just not going there.

Erstwhile Education Secretary Michael Gove certainly wasn’t interested, and was much more excited about the small number of independent schools forced by financial circumstances (these have been a difficult few years) to enter the state system as free schools or academies. Great for someone wielding power from the centre, and quite a boost to the ego I guess: but not necessarily the best in the long run for the country or for those schools and their proud traditions.

The point is that it is our independence that characterises us above all: and it is that total independence (rather than the very limited freedoms exaggerated in the description of academies as “state-funded independent schools”) that really enables us to do what is best for our schools and, above all, for the children in them, rather than following government initiatives, diktats and U-turns.

It’s not rocket-science after all. Independence is our greatest boon and the bedrock of our success. It’s a shame that governments present and past choose to play with the word independence and tinker with systems instead of really taking the big decisions and trusting schools and professionals to know and do best.

As for the Election, I don’t know whether it’s a good or a bad thing that the status of independent schools is simply not an election issue. Perhaps I’ll go with a misquote from Oscar Wilde: “There’s only one thing worse than government not being interested in independent schools, and that’s being interested!” 

Bernard Trafford

Headmaster