Peter Hoskin

What should be asked of the independent sector?

What should be asked of the independent sector?
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With the Charity Commission recommending that private schools should do more for the "public benefit", public school headmasters are at odds over whether or not they do enough already.  As Melanie Phillips has already noted in a must-read Spectator blog post, the first shot was fired by the headmaster of Wellington College, Dr Anthony Seldon, in yesterday’s Independent.  Seldon claims that the independent school system is helping to perpetuate "educational apartheid" (i.e. the inequality between the independent and state sectors):


“It is not right for any longer for our schools to cream off the best pupils, the best teachers, the best facilities, the best results and the best university places.  If you throw in the 166 remaining grammar schools, which are predominantly middle class and private schools in all but name, the stranglehold is almost total ….  We need a new vision for the independent sector in the 21st century and currently no one, and certainly neither government nor the sector itself, is providing it ….  A new vision, however, is at hand. With the academy and trust school programmes, independent schools are at last being offered the opportunity to enter into a new relationship and we must all seize this vision for this century.  Forget charity commissioners and whatever they may or may not demand.  Independent schools, many of which were founded with high-minded moral or religious ideals, should jump at the opportunity of starting an academy or taking part in a trust as a way of rededicating themselves in the 21st century.”


The headmaster of St Paul’s, Dr Martin Stephen, countered Seldon's claims in today’s Telegraph:


“It is all too easy to bash them for their exclusivity while starving them of the funding to do something about it.  What the attack on these schools does not mention is the extraordinary contribution that independent schools are making to the knowledge economy of UK plc: 61.8 percent of A* grades in single-subject science at GCSE were achieved by the seven per cent of pupils attending independent schools.  What a pity the headline did not say: ‘Independent schools fuel the knowledge economy’ ….  As for the middle classes exerting a stranglehold on good education, it is a strange comment.  It seems that commitment to a good education for one's children is now a crime, yet I have never met a single member of the middle class who sought to deny a good education to anyone's child.  If they fight their corner to gain excellence in their child's schooling, I am inclined to congratulate them, not condemn: thank God someone is fighting for standards.”


The question of how much is owed – in the name of equality – by private institutions to public bodies is one that cuts across a number of policy areas.  Should private hospitals lend equipment and expertise to NHS centres?  Should private companies be obliged to give jobs to the unemployed?  The boundaries need to be established, and this task should become one of the defining features of the current Parliament.


But it’s not only those in teaching and in Whitehall who need to get their heads around these issues.  I’m sure that there are many who will feel even more aggrieved at paying such high taxes if the Government is also asking for help from the private sector.