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The Government is looking in the wrong place for innovation in education

Friday, 14 September 2018

If we want state schools to survive and thrive, don’t tie the hands of the innovative and adventurous independent school sector.

There is much talk of late about what independent schools bring to the UK. Both the Government and opposition parties have flirted with ways of altering the tax position of these non profit making foundations and I think it’s worth stepping back and looking at the real benefits of the independent sector. Some simple facts: independent schools contribute £9.5 billion to the UK’s GDP; they employ nearly 230,000 people. Independent schools alleviate the tax burden for the education of 625,000 children which equates to 6.5% of the country’s children and would cost an extra £3bn if they were being paid for by taxpayers, stretching a sector, already doing an amazing job with diminishing resources, to breaking point. Those things are all important, but I don’t think they represent the real benefit of the independent education system in this country.

The UK’s independent  schools are admired from every country in the world; people of all nations continue to aspire to be able to send their children to boarding schools in the UK, seen as a gold standard in education. Whilst there is always focus on Eton and Winchester, every independent school in the country is part of this picture. In many countries this would be a source of pride. But not us. We prefer to vilify the things which we do well and are known for; to criticise and bate a sector which means many of the world’s wealthiest learn their morals and their values on our shores. But this isn’t the most important thing either.

To turn around an oil tanker famously takes over a mile. Oil tankers are not nimble. It’s not their fault; it’s the nature of being an oil tanker. The course they were on wasn’t the wrong one, they just needed to go a different way for a bit because the current has changed, or the wind, or the instructions from the bridge.

State education is an oil tanker. No matter how much government tries to give schools independence and expects innovation, in the end the taxpayer will still have to pick up the tab so the Government needs to be accountable. Single academies are disappearing in favour of Multi-Academy Trusts which educate thousands of children. This is all a great thing. I love my time serving as a Trustee for the Palladian Academy Trust and our schools do amazing things. That we work together brings a wealth of diversity to our schools which enriches the opportunities for all of our pupils. But innovating as an oil tanker is hard and striking out in a completely new way takes time and that is where independent schools come in.

In a world where many of the most popular career choices now did not exist five years ago (think ‘app developer’ or ‘social media consultant’), education needs to be fast paced and adaptable, as our children do. When an oil tanker is coming into harbour, it is led by a pilot boat, or sometimes a team of pilot boats. These boats aren’t ‘better’ or more entitled somehow, they just do a different job. Independent schools can innovate in a way which is almost impossible for our larger cousins in the state sector; they can try new things with fewer pupils on roll and more nimble finances which would be too great a risk to larger organisations. At Monkton, this took the form of AS tracking which began here, alongside Wellington College, six years ago and is now one of the fastest growing educational tools in the country. That we can now understand our pupils emotional health in a scientific manner is a world leading advantage in a world where teenagers are under ever greater pressure to perform and allows us to guide them into adulthood more effectively. This year, along with Harrow, we will pioneer the next phase of that development in the classroom. Our early partners at Wellington also led on the wellbeing revolution in education under the expert tutelage of Ian Morris (who should surely have business cards with Head of Happiness written on them) which has changed the way we see Personal Development education across the country.

Aside from the basic political truth that people should be allowed to spend their money however they want, independent schools fill a different role in our educational landscape; in a Turner painting, both the sky and the land are beautiful, both play a vital part in the composition, both are different, valuable and things to be cherished.

But don’t get me wrong. For every one of these initiatives which succeeded, there are countless hundreds that failed. We know that we learn from failures.  Isn’t it a good thing therefore to let the nimble and independent schools try new things, fail in some, succeed in others without risk to the state sector and tax payer, and let those schools pick from the experiments that worked? Because independent schools are the crucible of educational innovation in this country and help us all to a brighter future.

Chris Wheeler

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