Monday 7 October 2019 4:12 am

Private schools must learn to turn privilege into purpose

The heat is on for privilege.

As the polarisation of society continues to deepen, private schools risk becoming the tobacco of education.

Banning them was a centrepiece of the recent Labour party conference. But the antagonism towards them doesn’t stop there. Even pillars of the Conservative establishment like Michael Gove have questioned the fairness and future of paid-for education.

The polemic of today’s Britain means that the nuance of the contribution which independent schools make to society lands on stony ground. These schools are increasingly portrayed as part of a failed establishment: out-of-touch bastions of privilege, failing to connect and to adequately contribute. Time for a change.

Sir Anthony Seldon, the former headteacher at Wellington school, voiced his concerns to me: “15 years ago, I said that independent schools were dull, defensive and divided. And while much has been done to address this, it’s not enough, because there’s more to fear and more toxicity now than ever before.”

His view is that, back then, the sector felt that reaching out into society would undermine it. But now, reaching out could well turn out to be its salvation.

Achieving this is going to take unparalleled levels of fresh commitment. It needs to be based on an acceptance from within the private school establishment that the defensive measures it will no doubt take to protect itself from a future Labour government won’t be enough. 

The sector needs to turn privilege into purpose – and that purpose is to realise the potential of young people across the country.

We are seeing this elsewhere, outside the education sector. In a recent call-out to business, the Financial Times editor Lionel Barber wrote that: “The long-term health of free enterprise capitalism will depend on delivering profit with purpose. Companies will come to understand that this combination serves their self-interest as well as their customers and employees.”

In the same way, the long-term health of private education rests on more innovative engagement with the state sector and mobilising expertise and resources to play an ever-greater role in addressing deprivation and inequality. And that means creating real partnerships, so that communities, teachers and students can work together on shared challenges. 

The private education sector is well-placed to take on such challenges. It’s already a proven winner: not only does it educate around seven per cent of UK children, but it’s a large and successful business. Its total annual economic footprint is estimated at £13.71bn in terms of GDP, supporting 303,000 jobs and providing £4.12bn in tax revenue.

For the doubters, this success is proof of the problems of privilege. But turn it around, and you can see the potential for private schools to be community innovators and catalysts for the next generation of talent.

And it’s not just one-way traffic either. Independent schools can often appear anachronistic in how they prepare their own students for the outside world. There are things that they themselves can learn from more engagement with the rest of society.

Look at a high-achieving further education college or multi-academy trust, and you often see a focus on enterprise skills and the jobs of the future that is genuinely market-leading. 

I’ve been to further education colleges where you don’t sign up to a course – rather, you join a learning company where your exposure to real life business challenges starts from day one. The enterprise culture is palpable, the can-do attitude inspiring. Private schools, take note.

In turn, when you look at business leaders like Sir Rod Aldridge who work with academies, they seek to bring some of the best of private school thinking into the state sector. Alongside academic excellence, there is a focus on business and life skills, as well as professional qualifications in sport or performing arts. 

This diverse landscape provides an unparalleled opportunity for independent schools to think of themselves as far more than the ultimate cottage industry. Rather, they are a network of institutions with systems, processes and expertise to share. 

And if that is the give, the get is a more integrated relationship with the society in which they exist, bringing new outlooks and approaches, which they themselves could benefit from.

Those defending private schools in the face of opposition from Labour make the point that you don’t improve education by shutting down good schools, and that private schools have done much to become more active in communities that need them. Both are true.

But what is also true is that, to withstand the heat, private schools need a new mission. That means coming together as activists, reinventing themselves as a positive force for change, backing progressive endeavours with communities, and making a difference at scale. 

Not only is this the right proactive response to political pressure – it’s also, much more importantly, the right thing to do.

Main image credit: Getty

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