An opinion piece from the FIDS Secretary, Stephen Smith
It was at the HMC Dublin conference in 2003 that I spoke up for social mobility in our schools- basically re-connecting us with our roots, and FIDS began with a group of Heads who were really committed to social mobility, and regretted being side-lined by successive governments. The political situation was in some ways encouraging – the Labour government was stimulating partnerships, and less aggressive to the independent sector. Some doubts were expressed- were we in opposition to HMC and GSA etc ? There we established a Forum rather than an association, and stretched across the associations.
Have things changed ? How far have we come? Certainly the attacks on Charitable Status have decreased, but politically ? In 2005 I said that it would take 25 years to make significant progress. In many ways we have done better than that. Parties are aware of our existence, and know to a certain extent that we are different from the traditional public, boarding schools. We have been recognised and work with the Sutton Trust and the ISSP – BUT the mass of the public is unaware, and the Press does not really regard us as relevant and still ties us together with the traditional view of ‘posh schools’. There is no real discussion on how systems of education and local democracy work. In many ways we find ourselves fighting the arguments of the past.
I want to ask the question where we go from here. There is much more we can do as a body.
The politicians are aware of us – but are making no attempt to listen. They are sympathetic, and will work with us to discuss partnerships. This is all very meaningful – and something we have been doing for years unofficially – but we are being used for their purposes – helping improve the state sector ( which is a much bigger task than successive governments realise). Moreover it is not tackling the basic structural issue. We have an independent sector which is not in any way structurally connected to the mainstream of British education – you could say by definition. We are used as examples of good practice – longer working days, pastoral care, high academic standards, house systems, CCF etc –but parties see us as examples, not really wanting to engage with us in any meaningful way. Their general philosophy ranges from the extreme of wishing to abolish us – through attacking our privileges, charitable status and university access- onto positive desires to ensuring we are competent, providing a good standard of education and safe places for pupils to learn. They rely on us to provide students for the most difficult university course such as languages, maths and sciences, and expect us to create a fuss regarding exam results and exam boards – because it gives credibility to the pursuit of standards.
However no-one has really considered structural means of us helping the state sector in any way and they are scared of entering into real dialogue. The topic of Education is similar to that of Europe – a soapbox for politicians to trumpet high standards, while not really wanting to make any structural changes. Even Michael Gove’s seemingly radical proposals were primarily a dismantling of systems, and setting up a free for all whilst being authoritarian regarding curriculum. Politicians’ approaches to education are short term, autocratic and non-consensual. Above all there is a basic mistrust of educators.
We can moan on about this for ages – but I challenge the independent sector to do something about it. It has been extremely defensive in the last twenty years – defending its position and so-called privileges. Even the Conservatives- traditional supporters of independence, one might assume- have really only stood by and let us get on with it. This was in fact said to me by a Conservative politician – you are doing a good job, let us get on with sorting out the state sector.
FIDS schools traditionally have been different. We have been fundamentally part of our local communities, unlike most boarding schools, and were cut apart from the mainstream by ideological politicians. We didn’t like it : we have been passionate in our dislike, but powerless in our response. Any overtures we have made to help have been rejected, especially since 2010, when the answer seems to be ‘sponsor academies’ or ‘become an academy’.
How has HMC, GSA or the combined ISC responded to all of this ? In a very piecemeal fashion, and very defensively. It is left to individual schools or trusts to respond, and come up with ideas for their local situations. At various meetings with independent school representatives at the DFE, the request has simply been – sponsor academies from your wealth and according to your charity’s aims. The fact that this is impossible for most of our schools seems disregarded, and we are left on a limb, with the DFE and Press holding the moral high ground. It is time for us to go on the offensive, and that is my challenge to FIDS and its schools.
Otherwise there is real danger. It is not the danger of charitable status or inspection : it is not even the danger of fees increasing beyond the rises in inflation – although it is connected to this. There will always be a market for independent education, and, as the economy improves, the pool of parents being able to afford our good value schools will expand. The danger that I see is that we will become educational gated communities. The upper middle classes will be the only ones who can afford to send their children to our schools, and the social mix we so cherish will have disappeared – as it is already disappearing. The public schools pre 1976 were a small elite, primarily boarding, with prep schools feeding them. The expansion of the independent system since then has made independent education viable for many more people : it is of high quality : and the schools are day schools, fitting in to the majority modern lifestyle choice. However the ethos of direct grant remained, and the passionate desire to keep a social balance. We never had to justify our charitable status as a concept. However our social balance and raison d’etre is in great danger – and we can do little about it. We can offer bursaries, but our financial base is insufficient to expand it to high proportions.
Would it not be criminal for successive governments to allow this to happen ? Yes, in my view. Would it not be criminal for us to allow it to happen? Yes indeed, but the great danger lies in doing nothing and letting it happen
Heads are fully committed to their schools – and their school’s survival. They see their main task as keeping the school going and its standards high. They are totally responsible to their Governors. They are not politicians in a national sense. They may be local figures of import, and a few may reach the press by their statements, but in general they do not have time or energy to take on government. So it is left to our associations – who as I have said are decidedly non-political – in taking on this issue.
Another issue is the effects of social mobility itself. Have we as a society really thought this through? I would maintain that different systems are needed in different areas, with their separate cultural history and makeup. More over we need to face the issue of selection – this toxic word. We need another word to enable sensible debate. The Labour government trumpeted ‘Every Child Matters’ : they do, and it did matter – but not universally for the academically able, who have been systematically held back in many areas and ways by government reforms.
Our schools are unashamedly academic. We want keen interested pupils who push the intellectual boundaries but have we seriously thought through the implications? Society has changed dramatically from the 1950s and 1960s. But what about such academic pupils from different backgrounds today ? We say we want poor children in our schools in order to give them serious life chances and break out of the cycle of poverty – but do we really ? Are we too ‘nice’ : are we too middle class ? are we ill-prepared for social consequences of social mix ? what will our present customers think? what will our governors think ? what will our former pupils think – who have rose-tinted views of their past experiences? The very parents who have been socially mobile and got their children into our schools may not want those children mixing with the children ( however bright) from those families who they have fought to remove themselves from.
My passionate desire is that we should want this social mix – even if it requires a great deal of re-thinking – but we have to show a desire, which will make us fight for it rather than meekly succumbing to the inevitable effects of independence and high fees. So at times I question my colleagues desire for social mobility : and as time goes on, and we become ‘nicer’, more ‘middle class’ schools the challenges of social mobility become greater. It is easier to have a few bursaries to placate our consciences.
It is vital that we get this issue clarified in our minds, because if we are to push for more integration we need to know what we really want – and how much control we lose.
Ultimately it is up to policy makers to decide on such structural changes. Some politicians are allowing schools increasing freedoms – but interestingly there is little democratic involvement in this. Historically, County Council and LEAs were brought in to introduce elements of democracy into educational systems. This was too indirect in my view – LEAS were not directly elected or accountable -but there is a real danger we have thrown out the baby with the bath water, and now have a free for all in school structures and organisation, with very little local involvement and control. The politicians have to get a serious grip here, and institute a national debate. We would welcome this, and need to start pushing for it.
Perhaps I can be freer because I am no longer Head at Bedford Modern, but the passion I felt about education as a driver for social change I still feel – and I weep at the inability of our leaders to get to grips seriously with the issues. Let the debate continue – but in my view it is time for more action!