No doubt you will have seen Dr Tristram Hunt’s speech last week about independent schools and tax rates. If you have not, I suggest you read it first.
This is an invitation to do something radical. In his book, ‘Lessons Learned’, Fenton Whelan estimates that children between the ages of 4 to 18 spend around 1 million minutes in school. This might sound like a generous amount of time, but to make each minute count there must be an effective school system in place – a condition arguably not fulfilled by our current arrangements. Last week Dr Tristram Hunt revealed his take on resolving the problem by suggesting that independent school should lose their charity status if they do not form meaningful partnerships with state schools that will enhance the experience of students. Some have labeled it as ‘class war’, a rebuttal that further muddies the waters. If Tristram Hunt is to be considered as a possible next Secretary of State for Education, it is worth examining his ideas in detail. After all, they might be foisted upon a school near you.
In my reading, Tristram Hunt’s makes two points, both of which contain a number of important complexities not accounted for in his original speech. The first is that the state and private sectors should work together. This is correct, and I firmly believe they should too. Where it has worked successfully is due to spirit of collegiality between the schools/teachers. One example is the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted (TLAB). In its third year, TLAB has managed to draw a fantastic crop of teachers from both sectors to lead workshops in their particular subject areas. These teachers have come together from the state and independent sector out of a shared desire to exchange and learn from each other and the result is an event that confirms the positive value of cross-sector dialogue and sharing. I question however, whether this same spirit of collegiality can be forced, rather than fostered, into existence. If such an event was to be demanded by government, the feeling of goodwill and openness would likely disappear, and teachers would rightly question the motives behind every conversation.
The second point that Tristram Hunt makes is that the removal of tax breaks would redress inequality across the country. While I don’t question the sincerity of his desire to redress the imbalance, I have serious concerns over the true effectiveness of this proposed removal. £150 million is a large sum of money, yet if divided equally among all state schools in England it would amount to just over £6,100 (if limited to secondary schools in England it would be around £20,311 per school). To be sure, an increase in school funding would be welcome, yet it is not the radical shift in equity that apparently drives the policy. What Tristram Hunt’s speech avoids is the stark reality that data on student achievement from Ofsted reveals; that the Social and Economic Status (SES) of parents and students still largely determines the grades that these students achieve. There are clear examples where individual schools have made a considerable difference – Dunraven School and Chestnut Grove School to name just two. Yet there is still a persistent achievement gap between those who are on free school meals and those students who are not.
As well as avoiding the difficult conversations on society and economy, the speech sidesteps key questions regarding the role of Ofsted, general funding for schools, and the progressive diminution of the Arts/Sport as a result. These are urgent problems that my colleagues in the state sector struggle with as they strive to provide the best education for students. We have a state inspection regime that is nominally based around accountability, yet historically it has enabled an environment of fear and summary judgement rather than support and appropriate challenge. We have little space for the Liberal Arts (music, dance, drama, art) because politicians appear to only want a curriculum, which as the philosopher Michael Sandel suggests, reflects a market society rather than one that reflects some of the most wonderful aspects of our humanity. As a result we have diminishing opportunities for school sports, a lack of investment in facilities, and limited vision when it comes to school planning. These are serious issues and the challenge is to create an inclusive and successful education system by thinking through all the problems and opportunities to maximise success.
I don’t think anyone disagrees with the view that education in this country can improve when we work together, or that it must. When average house prices in the postal districts of the thirty best performing state schools are almost nine times higher than average gross annual earnings, we have a problem. When we have around 1 in 10 students from working class backgrounds and hardly any black students attending Oxford and Cambridge, we have a problem. When fees for independent schools are, in the words of Andrew Halls, Head of King’s College School in Wimbledon, only for ‘oligarchs’, we have a problem. As a teacher, I want the best for all students, even the ones outside my immediate care. When only limited numbers of students can benefit from a great education there is a serious problem; one that demands a collective effort. Yet it cannot happen when ‘pointing fingers’ is perceived as an effective strategy for educational change.
Essentially, this is an invitation to Tristram Hunt and other politicians to grasp the complexity of education in this country and engage with all schools. Without this, we will stay exactly where we are, wasting too many of the precious and unrecoverable 1 million minutes students have.