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Schools that work for everyone? The independent dimension

Stephen Ravenscroft at Stone King LLP looks at how schools can work for everyone

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 03, 2016 | Law, finance, HR

So our new government is settling in and with it, unsurprisingly, setting a new wave of proposals with regard to the future of England’s schools. The speed with which the proposals have been generated has surprised many, while further surprise has been expressed about the range of proposals discussed within the Department for Education’s ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation document.  

The government points to the need for all parts of the education system to collaborate more to widen opportunity and raise standards in existing schools, and, in particular, suggests that more could be done by independent schools, universities, selective schools and faith schools.

But have we been here before? Is this just a case of the Emperor’s new clothes, or are there genuinely innovative proposals here which might just work?  

Independent schools might be forgiven for thinking that they had navigated the choppy waters of public benefit over the last 10 years and that a new understanding had been reached following the ISC challenge to the Charity Commission’s guidance back in 2011 and last year’s abortive attempt to create a new legal duty to set minimum requirements on independent schools as to what they must do to meet the public benefit test (the outcome of which was an understanding that the Charity Commission and the ISC would work to encourage independent schools in their partnerships with the maintained sector).

The government points to the need for all parts of the education system to collaborate more to widen opportunity and raise standards in existing schools

However, the government appears to be willing to have a further bite at this particular cherry. They point to the fact that many independent schools are out of reach and that, while many offer bursaries and scholarships to increase participation, there is “much more they should be doing so that children from a much wider variety of backgrounds truly benefit from the excellent education they can deliver.”  

The paper suggests that this should be achieved through independent schools:

  • sponsoring academies or setting up free schools; or
  • offering a certain proportion of places as fully funded bursaries to those unable to meet the fees – and for the amount of such bursaries to be significantly higher than at present.

The paper suggests that sponsorship will not necessarily involve capital investment but that, rather, schools should bring their considerable expertise and ‘impressive ethos’ to bear on the state sector.  

The paper also recognises that there are very many smaller independent schools which simply do not have the means or the capacity to work with the maintained sector in this way. For these schools, suggestions include the provision of access to their facilities, or offering school to school support, or that their senior leaders might become trustees of Multi Academy Trusts.  

The stick with which charitable independent schools will be beaten is the threatened withdrawal of charitable status, with new guidance and possibly new legislation to back this up.

The consultation’s aims are laudable: it is clearly in our nation’s interests for the quality of education offered to our children to be improved. However, is this realistic? Will independent schools have the time or money to participate to a greater degree within maintained education? And will maintained schools necessarily welcome input from independent schools? There are examples of previous academy sponsorships by both universities and independent schools – some have flourished (London Academy of Excellence, for example), while others have struggled, with differences in culture and approach proving to be insurmountable. One hopes that lessons of the past will be borne in mind going forward.

So, interesting times. This is a vital time for the sector to express its views and to help shape and refine these proposals. This opportunity should not be missed!

Stephen Ravenscroft is a Partner in the Education Team at Stone King LLP

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