In November of last year, I was faced with an incredible coincidence. Just as my own school, Shrewsbury High School, received a national Independent School Award for its work with maintained-sector schools, Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, grabbed the broadsheet headlines as he claimed that independent schools were not doing enough in precisely this area. He went as far as to say that independent schools would be threatened with the loss of their charitable status if they did not do more work in this area where Shrewsbury High’s efforts have received such praise.
Asked to comment on this subject, I think two things are very apparent. First, Mr Hunt is absolutely correct in asserting that there are huge merits in what can be gained from collaborative work between independent and maintained-sector schools. At Shrewsbury High, as in all schools, we feel we have a duty and a desire to be at the heart of our community. In projects at our prep school, we have organised sporting outreach days where more than 600 children from more than 14 local primary schools from across the county join us each year to take part in tournaments in netball, football, athletics and more. The days are enjoyed by our own young girls and boys and those from other schools. They enable us to share our own playing fields, pitches and facilities with our colleagues in other schools, who sometimes do not have the same outdoor space, but who are keen to pursue competitive sport: evidence to support Mr Hunt’s suggestion that the benefits of such work can be huge.
Furthermore, we bring children from schools across the county to our senior school where they use our computing and robotic equipment to build upon the wonderful work in science which they pursue at their own schools. Indeed, this project has been so successful that the Department of Education has just kindly awarded us a grant to extend this work. Once again, there is evidence here that all schools, whether they be independent or maintained, reap huge benefits from such collaborative work.
However, I also feel a second issue is very apparent in Mr Hunt’s comments. Unfortunately, reporting on his remarks did come across in the press as being quite combative. Mr Hunt’s suggestion that perpetuating divisions could “corrode society” are very charged and to one who works in education, where encouragement is the priority, I would suggest it might be more helpful if we adopt the kind of approaches that we know work best. As in all things, building on the current positives is often the key. So many independent schools involve themselves in community work where sixth formers visit hospices or aid local charities. However, if Mr Hunt would like bolder work like our own to be explored, then possibly being creative and adding structure, appointing independent schools to lead and champion such work in each region, might be the way to make progress. The independent schools across the country are all linked. They meet regularly through their affiliations with GSA, ISA, HMC and so on, and so there is a wonderful infrastructure already in place to engage with independent schools and to work with them in this area. This, for example, would allow us to share our projects and how we run them with our local independent and state-sector counterparts, which could then be transferred into other local collaborations. Surely this kind of approach, thinking strategically about how to develop this crucial and important work between sectors in a positive manner, is the way forward. As anyone knows in education, sanctions are not the answer. It is positive encouragement and wise work which makes the difference.
Michael Getty is head of Shrewsbury High School