Two of the greatest challenges in English education today are, first, not just to reduce the number of underperforming comprehensives but to eradicate them, and second, to forge a new settlement between state and private education.
I put these two challenges together because they go together. It is my view, after 20 years of engagement with schools of all types, that England will never have a world-class education system or a “one-nation” society until state and private schools are part of a shared, national endeavour to develop the talents of all young people to the full.
The two also go together, in that academies are at the heart of the solution to both challenges. It is academies that are systematically eradicating failing comprehensives. And academies – as independent state schools – are the vehicle by which private schools can become systematically engaged in establishing and running state-funded schools.
So, just as the challenge is simple – how to unite state schools and private schools in a common endeavour – I believe the solution is also simple. Every successful private school, and private school foundation, should sponsor an academy or academies. They should do this alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private and state-funded independent schools and following the lead of a growing number of private schools and their foundations that have done precisely this and would not think of going back, including Dulwich, Wellington, the Haberdashers’, the Mercers’, the Girls’ Day School Trust, the City of London Corporation and the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham.
Simple does not mean easy, nor does it mean little. By sponsoring academies I don’t just mean advice and assistance, the loan of playing fields and the odd teacher or joint activity, which is generally what passes for “private state partnership”, however glorified for the Charity Commission. I mean the private school or foundation taking complete responsibility for the governance and leadership of an academy or academies and staking their reputation on their success, as they do on the success of their fee-paying schools.
The roots of the state-private divide are so deep that they reach to the very foundation of state education in England in the 19th century. Historians talk a lot about Gladstone’s Elementary Education Act of 1870, which essentially started state education. But equally significant were Gladstone’s Endowed Schools Acts 1869 and 1873, which turned the great public schools and many of the newer grammar schools previously run in a rackety way by Crown, church or local appointees, into a Victorian equivalent of today’s academies, with independent governing foundations to control their assets, management and leadership. This Victorian academy status greatly strengthened the private schools as institutions. Yet their fees, and the conservative use of their charitable assets by their new governing bodies, kept most of them largely closed to all except the upper and upper middle classes. And so they remained as the state secondary system developed in parallel, and separately, in the decades after the Balfour Education Act 1902.
There was a moment at the end of the Second World War when history might have taken a different turn. An official report, published in 1944 on the day Dwight Eisenhower reviewed his bridgehead in Normandy, said that the social division between private and state schools “made far more difficult the task of those who looked towards a breaking down of those harddrawn class distinctions within society”. Even Winston Churchill, visiting his alma mater Harrow, talked to the boys of “broadening the intake” and of the public schools becoming more and more based on aspiring youth “in every class of the nation”.
But it didn’t happen. Two generations later, the only significant changes to the private school system are that it is larger and richer, and its average educational attainment has risen to among the highest in the world.
The reason for the failure of postwar policy to overcome the private-state divide can be explained simply. Both sides of politics, and both sides of education, positively wanted the divide to continue. So, for differing reasons, they adopted a one-word policy in respect of private schools: isolation.
On the Labour side, ideological antipathy to fee-paying, and later also to selective, education bred often intense hostility. But the social and legal position of the private schools –plus, paradoxically, the personal educational preferences of Labour leaders from Attlee to Wilson and Callaghan – kept at bay any attack beyond the rhetorical, except for the withdrawal of state funding schemes for small numbers of pupils to attend private schools.
I treasure Roy Jenkins’s exchange with Harold Wilson when turning down Wilson’s offer to become education secretary in 1965. “Looking for an excuse [to decline the job],” he records in his memoirs, “I said that all three of our children were at fee-paying schools and that this surely was an obstacle to being minister of education in a Labour government. Wilson brushed this aside as being of no importance. ‘So were mine,’ he said.” Tony Blair was the first prime minister in history to send his children to state secondary schools.
On the Tory side, there was an equal and opposite isolationism. Most Tory ministers and MPs went to private schools and sent their children to them. They still do. So long as Labour kept the dogs off, they had no desire to court controversy by proposing any role in the state system for private schools and their foundations. Better to let sleeping dogs lie.
So much for the politicians. The leaders of state and private schools were – and many of them remain – similarly isolationist. It was an article of faith among the leaders of the comprehensive movement that private schools were not only socially divisive but also, in their educational practice, largely irrelevant. This is still a pronounced view, even among academy head teachers. They say, to paraphrase: “What can that lot who just spoon-feed the children of the rich ever know about education in Hackney and Knowsley?” As for the heads of the private schools, many of them have been only too eager to agree, especially when the suggestion is made that they might manage academies.
Pressed further, they often say it’s not about ordinary children v privileged children but about non-selective schools vselective schools, an argument made by Sir Eric Anderson when provost of Eton. I found this richly ironic, given that Eton until recently was basically an allability comprehensive for the rich and titled.
Those on the left, and in the state sector, who see the private schools as an irrelevance need only look at their huge footprint in almost every national elite, from politics and business to the media, sport and the arts. The Cameron- Clegg coalition is an Eton-Westminster coalition. (Westminster School accounted for two of the five Lib Dem ministers in cabinet until Chris Huhne’s resignation, and the rest of the cabinet is practically a roll-call of the other leading private schools.)
To those in the private schools and their governing bodies who are reluctant to embrace academies, I appeal to their professionalism and their charitable missions. It was excusable to stand apart from state-funded education when the state did not want them engaged in the first place. But that is the isolationist politics of the past. With the academies programme, supported across the political divide, they have an opportunity to engage in state-funded education without compromising their independence, renewing for the 21st century their essential moral and charitable purposes.
Depressingly, the politics of private-state school reform is still too often seen in terms of cash transactions. On the left, the conventional wisdom is that charitable status gives an unfair subsidy to private schools which ought to be ended, while some private school leaders and governors, whenever it is suggested that they might sponsor academies or otherwise support state education in a non-tokenistic way, retort that their parents are already paying twice for education, through their taxes and their school fees, so why should they pay a third time over? Some say they would rather “give up” charitable status than be expected to do this.
Both these approaches are misconceived, for they fundamentally misunderstand the position of private schools as charities. “Charitable status” is not a badge that can be awarded or taken away from the assets of private schools by the Charity Commission for good or bad behaviour. Nor could the government do this, nor even parliament, unless charitable assets nationwide are to be held liable to random nationalisation. Rather, it is fundamental to their being, like blood in a mammal.
The assets of Eton, Westminster, Winchester and the rest are vested in their present trustees and managers on the understanding that they be deployed for charitable purposes. Private school charities can no more “give up” charitable status than they can have it stripped from them. If they do not wish to continue as charities, or if they are unwilling to perform genuine charitable endeavour, then their highly valuable charitable assets should be passed into hands willing to do so. If the governors of Westminster School, for instance, then want to set up a separate, non-charitable trust solely or very largely concerned with the education of those able to pay their fees of £31,000 a year, that is up to them.
The charitable purposes of these institutions could not be clearer. William of Wykeham established Winchester for the education mainly of poor scholars, and only a small number of “noble commoners”. Henry VI set up Eton for poor scholars. Charterhouse was established by Sir Thomas Sutton, the wealthiest commoner in England, for – yes, more poor scholars. Elizabeth I endowed Westminster School for the same purpose; to this day it is an integral part of Westminster Abbey. John Lyon set up Harrow in 1572 as a free grammar school for the education of boys of the parish of Harrow.
Conscience and duty
I could go on through the statutes, charters and founding deeds of hundreds of private schools. It shouldn’t take the Charity Commission to challenge private school foundations about their charitable mission. Their trustees and governors should look to them constantly as a matter of conscience and duty.
With each passing decade many of these schools have become more, not less exclusive, and for generations now few of them have done anything bold to reconnect with their charitable purpose. Most of them are seeking to provide a few more bursaries. Yet it is hard to argue that this is enough, when they could also be running academies whose central purpose is the mission for which their assets were intended in the first place.
As for the idea that these great schools and foundations are not capable of making a success of academies with a more challenging pupil intake, it is a comic proposition. The governing body of Eton is chaired by the former Conservative minister William Waldegrave. Its members include three professors, three knights, five PhDs and a Prussian princess. Westminster School’s governing body is chaired by the Dean of Westminster – John Hall, the former chief education officer of the Church of England who was the driving force behind the Church’s decision to set up more than 30 academies. His fellow governors include the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, three professors, two canons, two knights, one baron and one dame.
Almost every private school governing body in the country is a catalogue of the very great and the very good, locally or nationally, including business, religious and educational leaders.
The notion that these organisations, if they have the will to do so, cannot command the resources and the expertise needed to run a successful school or schools in less advantaged areas – if that were true, England would indeed be Greece, about to default on its whole society and not just its state borrowing.
However, there is no need to argue by assertion. The leaders are there. Dulwich is spon - soring an academy in Sheppey. Wellington is sponsoring an academy in Wiltshire. The King Edward VI Foundation is sponsoring an academy in Sheldon, east Birmingham. All these academies replace failing comprehensives. The Girls’ Day School Trust has converted two of its outstanding private schools, in Liverpool and Birkenhead, into state academies. And five substantial academy chains – built up by the Mercers’ Company, the Haberdashers’ Company, the Woodard Corporation, the United Church Schools Trust and the City of London Corporation – have grown out of the management of historic chains of private schools, leveraging this expertise and experience in education to service academies alongside. With vision and leadership, there could be hundreds more academies sponsored by private school foundations.
It would also be good to see successful independent day schools convert to become academies. It was one of my main objectives for the academies programme, as minister for schools, that it should be a vehicle for a modern version of the “direct grant” scheme, which until its abolition in the 1970s made it possible for leading independent grammar schools to be state funded without charging fees. I had in mind a simple model. The private school would become an academy, fully retaining its independent management and character but without fees for any pupils. It would exchange academically selective admission for all-ability admission, with a large catchment area and “banded” admissions so as to ensure a fully comprehensive ability range. There would also be a large sixth form, underpinning continued very strong academic performance.
A direct-grant sector on these lines is gathering scale. I encouraged and oversaw the transition of five historic fee-paying secondary schools to academy status (William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester, the Belvedere School in Liverpool, Birkenhead High School, and Colston’s Girls’ and Bristol Cathedral schools in Bristol). All five are still performing strongly as academies, while expanding their intake and greatly broadening their social range. The Cameron government has continued this policy. Liverpool College and the King’s School, Tynemouth – both highly successful independent day schools in localities that suffer from high levels of deprivation – have recently decided to become academies.
With government encouragement, there could soon be 50 or 60 more “direct grant” academies. Over time, these direct grant academies could sponsor new academies, replicating their ethos and success within the system.
I recently visited the Petchey Academy, one of the five such schools in Hackney, east London, sponsored by Jack Petchey, a great East End philanthropist. His academy isn’t just about examination results; it is about education for character, for community and for citizenship. This is done brilliantly, in one of London’s most deprived communities.
The staff were particularly keen that I should see debating teams from Years 10 and 11 debate before the whole of both year groups. The debaters were articulate and well prepared, just like the pupils in all those private school debating societies.
The motion they were debating was: “This House would abolish the private schools.” It was carried by two to one. All the old arguments were aired. Unfairness. Privilege. Elitism. Afterwards, I asked the girl who had led the charge whether she had ever visited a private school. “Of course not,” she said. “Why would they want to have anything to do with anyone from around here?”
Why indeed. It is time to bury the past and build a better future.
Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer and served as schools minister from 2005-2008. For a unique New Statesman reader offer on his new book, “Education, Education, Education” – just £8 (rrp £12.99), signed and with a personalised inscription – visit bitebackpublishing.com  and enter the promotional code: NSEducation.