Faith in the capacity of the independent schools sector to resource and effect improvement in state school provision has been an enduring feature of the education policy debate for many years. Despite the fact that very few such ventures can unequivocally be regarded as successes, engaging independent schools to lead improvement in failing schools through academy sponsorship in particular remains a key part of the government’s strategy, alongside an increasing emphasis on independent school-led partnerships for those without the resources to rise to the sponsorship challenge. Both elements rest on the flawed assumption that the independent sector has the answers and that the knowledge and skills required flow in one direction only.
It was never difficult to see that any government-led drive to remake state schools in the image of independent schools could not possibly enjoy any more than at best modest success. Independent schools are accountable, before all else to their customers – and independent of government. In addition to coming up hard against the realities of contextual difference, successive independent school academy sponsors have discovered that in practice, academies are nothing like the businesses they run in the private sector, but rather a heavily regulated arm of the public sector, in which a school’s compliance is more important than its personality, and the scope for innovation is heavily prescribed. This is not to preclude the possibility of improvement in the performance of struggling independent school sponsors – and indeed a new humility among the most promising appears to be opening up more fruitful learning dialogue – but lessons need to be learned for future school sponsor commissioning.
Leadership strategies are generally learned and developed to meet specific contextual challenges and as such are highly embedded
In respect of independent and state school collaborations, few would argue with the government’s new clarity of focus on those involving the sharing of subject expertise – the problem is that independent school teachers often lack the pedagogical skills and behaviour management strategies required for effective teaching and learning in many state school contexts. Talk to pretty much any state school head who has recruited from the independent sector and you’ll find, for example, that it is in fact unusual to find a great teacher from an academically selective school that performs as well in an inner-city comprehensive school with below average levels of attainment. Equally, excellent state school teachers are generally not well-suited to the private-school classroom. This is all the more true at the leadership level. Leadership strategies are generally learned and developed to meet specific contextual challenges and as such are highly embedded. Changing the behaviours and habits of leadership to suit another context is not easy. The very different conditions under which independent and state schools operate, the different challenges they face, and the very different incentives at work in these market contexts entail that success in the former does not translate at all straightforwardly to the latter.
The government should not be seeking to mandate particular forms of partnership or even indeed independent school practices for adoption across the system, but rather to encourage bottom-up exploration of the diversity of successful practice evident among schools of both sectors, and organic development of mutually beneficial initiatives.
Above all, the government needs to take a step backwards. Applying political pressure to independent schools to justify their charitable status by compliance with the government’s agenda has had almost the exact reverse on professional relations between the sectors to that intended, leaving school governors, head-teachers, staff and fee-payers patronised and resentful on all sides. Fruitful partnerships between independent and state schools, by contrast, emerge organically only when schools immunise themselves against charges of tokenism and focus on their relationships with neighbouring schools and what initiatives might be sustainably undertaken in the context of those relations. There is much that schools across the independent, academy, and broader state sectors can learn from one another, and do together, but mutual respect is crucial to the success of such partnerships, and pressure from central government has not helped to promote it.
The question is, what would? Are present incentives to collaborate adequate? Schools are rarely so well-resourced, or free, that they can afford to subsidise staff time spent managing initiatives or teaching pupils in other schools. A public-spirited attitude is rarely sufficient motivation for already busy professionals to give of their time pro bono. There are two ways in which such mutually beneficial exchange might be fostered in the current policy context, without need for costly policy initiative from central government. One is to turn the tables by encouraging independent schools to seek the experience and expertise of state school leaders, who would be attracted to participate by the proposition’s professional development value. This would be to set relations in a different framework and would likely open up opportunities for reciprocation as a result. Another, potentially more impactful, way of bringing teaching leaders into more fruitful relationship might be to make funding for Teaching School Alliances contingent on the recruitment of a willing independent school partner, putting the onus of initiative on the (state) Teaching School. In doing so, the government might just discover a new collaborative force for school improvement.
James Croft is Director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education.