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Theresa May must allow private schools to act independently to help poor children

30 September 2016, The Telegraph Education

Theresa May has thrown down the gauntlet to independent schools. I am pleased she has done so and pleased by the manner in which she has made her demands.

The difference this time round, compared to when the Charity Commission was pursuing a campaign to discredit independent education, is that she understands the value of good schools, of any hue, as centres of learning, as engines of social mobility and as institutions that can make a difference in their communities – if they are allowed to.

She is interested in promoting meritocracy rather than engendering class envy.

The leaders of independent schools need to convince her that there are many different ways for their schools to create public benefit and impact on social mobility.

No rigid test that demands the sponsoring of academies or a commitment to “needs blind” access or the sharing of facilities to the exclusion of other forms of support is going to get anywhere. 

What any given school says it can do needs to be held to account, but will depend on factors independent of government: local context, resources and the commitment of the head to the principles of access and partnership.

The Prime Minister is right that the great schools need to do most. My own school was at the forefront of the academies movement, supporting the creation of an academy on the Isle of Sheppey to set its pupils' aspirations higher than those that had existed in failing predecessor schools.

Theresa May has thrown down the gauntlet to independent schools Credit: PA

We engaged in the governance and management of the new school for three years, from 2009, before passing the sponsorship to Oasis Community Learning because we believed it had the capacity to make a difference on Sheppey, by working with the local people, in a way we, a school 50 miles away, could not.

Our withdrawal was not an admission of defeat, but freed us up to build a stronger educational partnership with an academy up the road in Tulse Hill.

But I also remain committed to a future in which 50 per cent of pupils at Dulwich will be on some form of means-tested fee-relief and to leading the Southwark Schools Learning Partnership.

And we share our facilities with local schools and contribute to a local Saturday School scheme and a teaching school alliance. We will continue to do all these things, irrespective of what government demands, because they resonate with our foundational mission.

Every independent school will want to meet the May challenge in its own way, but I hope that in support of a Prime Minister with a sense of social justice, the independent schools can work with government for the improvement of education for all in this country.

That would be one of the greatest legacies that any leader will have left this country in the last hundred years.

For all our new Prime Minister’s admiration for that man of detail, Joseph Chamberlain, her meritocratic mission is Gladstonian in scope.  That’s exciting; a challenge to embrace.

Dr Joe Spence

The Telegraph Education
Theresa May must allow private schools to act independently to help poor children