They have enviable results in the classroom and on the sports field. They command substantial fees and send large numbers of pupils to top universities. So why have leading private schools found it such heavy going transferring their success when sponsoring state schools?
It seemed the ideal solution to help break down the great barrier between state and private schooling, as well as to address the charge that private schools were not doing enough to justify their charitable status: a leading private school takes a struggling state school under its wing, lends it some expertise, allows it to use some of its facilities and even shares some of its teachers. Results surely cannot fail to be impressive.
That, certainly, seemed to be the outcome when the London Academy of Excellence, a Stratford-based sixth-form college which is sponsored by a host of private schools including Eton, Brighton and Highgate, recently announced that eight of its pupils had been offered places at Oxbridge. It seemed to be the story, too, when two years after it opened in 2009, an academy sponsored by Wellington College was given an ‘outstanding’ verdict by Ofsted.
The then education secretary Michael Gove praised Wellington and its master, Anthony Seldon, to the rafters, making a pointed plea to other private schools to follow its lead. Speaking at Wellington’s festival of education in 2011 he said: ‘The question for some public schools, some of them in Berkshire, is: if you’re so good, why is Anthony Seldon proving he’s better at transforming state education than you are?’
Eton later responded by sponsoring Holyport College, a free school which opened eight miles away in 2014. Stung by Gove’s charge, Eton gave the new school money for an all-weather sports pitch, £77,000 for new furniture for its boarding houses, cast-off music technology equipment, a piano and a minibus — as well as lending Latin and technology teachers.
Yet far from sparking a revolution, Wellington’s example has been followed in remarkably few cases. Dulwich abandoned plans for opening one, and Welling-ton never went beyond Seldon’s original plan for several sponsored academies. Moreover, where it has been tried it has not always proven a success. As for Holyport College, the verdict has yet to come in. Its first pupils have yet to take their GCSEs and the only Ofsted report so far has been a social-care inspection on the boarding facilities, which were judged to be ‘good’. Meanwhile, Wellington Academy has been through a torrid period. In 2013, two years after its initial Ofsted inspection, the proportion of pupils achieving five A*–C grades at GCSE (including English and maths) plunged from 48 per cent to 37 per cent in a single year. Many schools suffered a drop in results that year as the more rigorous exams demanded by Gove came into effect. However, sensing a public–relations disaster, the response by Wellington College was swift and merciless. The founding principal, Andy Schofield, was forced out, with Anthony Seldon announcing in a statement: ‘We’ve taken action because these results are unacceptable.’ He set a target of increasing the corresponding GCSE pass rate to 60 per cent, and personally took on a role as executive principal. Seldon’s initial mission of creating a state school which, like Wellington College, concentrated as much on the emotional development of pupils as their exam results, seemed to take on a sterner air. In one assembly he is reported by observers to have shrieked at pupils about their slovenliness.
In 2014, the proportion of pupils getting good GCSE grades climbed only one point to 38 per cent and an Ofsted inspection that January said the school required improvement. Students were not making enough progress in English and maths, the report said. The amount of good and outstanding teaching was spread too thinly across the school and not enough effort was being made to help the pupils to write well. It did praise the leadership of the new head, Dr Mike Milner, and a follow-up inspection two months later noted that progress was being made — although some teachers seemed to have ideas which varied from the improvement plan.
Last year, the number of pupils getting five good passes at GCSE rose to 50 per cent, yet the ranking system used by the Department for Education to compare performance relative to other schools with similar intake of pupils, puts it at only 27th out of 55. Dr Milner says the overall ranking doesn’t tell the whole story because maths and English results put Wellington Academy among the best in the county. ‘The school it replaced was one of the worst in the county,’ he said.
Bradfield College, in Berkshire, has not fared a lot better with its sponsorship of nearby Theale Green School. The arrangement, which began in 2013, is not financial help; it involves Bradfield helping with Theale Green’s improvement plan. Yet results to date have been far from encouraging. Last year Ofsted inspectors judged Theale Green, like Wellington Academy the year before, as requiring improvement. Not all teachers, they said, had high enough expectations of their pupils and they did not encourage them to take pride in presentation of their work. Nor has Ofsted’s judgement on the London Academy of Excellence been a ringing endorsement. It judged in 2014 that ‘not enough students make the progress that their GCSE grades indicate they should compared to similar students nationally’. Overall, it was judged to be ‘good’ — the second highest of four grades used by Ofsted.
It does seem a lot to expect the magic of good private school to rub off on a state school with a very different pupil intake. Expertise in one area of education does not necessarily transfer to another. Just as you wouldn’t put a university English professor in front of a class of five-year-olds and expect him to pass on as many basic literacy skills as an experienced primary-school teacher, it is asking a lot to put a teacher whose experience lies in teaching academically-selected pupils in front of an all-ability class where controlling pupil behaviour is the biggest challenge. It is perhaps no accident that the greatest success of the London Academy of Excellence has been at the top end, getting pupils into Oxbridge, as it most closely matches that of the sponsoring private schools.
But Dr Milner, who was a deputy head at Wellington College before becoming principal at the acdemy, dismisses any suggestion that a state school has nothing to learn from a top public school. ‘On Friday, we will host all of the Wellington College teachers here for a joint professional development day,’ he says. ‘The two schools’ Year Nines take part in a successful annual three-day programme to help develop teamwork and confidence. We have also had joint drama productions, sports fixtures, reciprocal teacher placements, joint activities for boarders, subject-specific enrichment activities and many other events. The pupils always get on extremely well. The great social divide is more in the minds of adults.’
Whether many more private schools will want to risk their reputations by being associated with a state academy with less than outstanding exam results is now questionable. What has grown up in place of full sponsorship is the development of Independent State School Partnerships, in which private schools create a looser relationship with nearby state schools, sharing facilities and organising joint activities, but without having to put their name to the state school. The Independent Schools Council, whose website schoolstogether.org encourages these partnerships, says there are 791 such arrangements around the country (from around 2,000 independent schools altogether).
It was brave of Wellington to put its name to an academy, but the future seems to lie more with arms-length arrangements. State-school kids will get to sniff around the astroturfs and music rooms of the private sector — just don’t expect to see a public-school brand on the badges of their blazers.