Britain’s private schools ‘have lost their moral purpose’
guardian.co.uk |by Daniel Boffey on June 30, 2012
Anthony Seldon, the leading headteacher tasked by the prime minister with encouraging independent schools to sponsor state academies, has expressed his frustration at the lack of enthusiasm among his private sector colleagues, warning that they have “lost their moral purpose”.
Seldon, a biographer of Tony Blair and master of Wellington College, in Berkshire, said persuading public schools to get involved in the academies programme had been “the most frustrating challenge” of his life.
But in a blow to David Cameron’s plans for public schools to pass on their expertise to state schools, Seldon has concluded after a year working on the project that “the reality is that most governing bodies don’t want to bond with state schools. They put up spurious reasons such as parental objections for masterly inactivity.”
Seldon was invited by Cameron to join forces with Lord Adonis, the former Labour education minister, last autumn to head the drive for collaboration between the independent sector and the state sector. At the time, Cameron said that the sponsorship of academies represented a “great way” for independent schools to fulfil their “charitable purpose”.
Wellington College, whose boarding fees are about £30,000 a year, has already established an academy and plans to unveil three more in the next year. Eton College, the prime minister’s alma mater, is also said to have “plans afoot, as have a small number of other independent schools”, according to Seldon. Two, he said, are on the verge of announcing plans and 30 are examining the feasibility of projects. But today, in an outspoken intervention, Seldon expresses his disappointment at the response of many public schools to the invitation to share ideas with the state sector, which he says would help all involved.
And, despite trumpeting the value of public schools to the UK historically, he complains that the independent sector appears happy to stay in “splendid isolation”. He writes: “The pace of change since has been agonisingly slow. Cameron charged a small group of us, including Andrew Adonis, to encourage independent schools down the academy sponsorship path.”
He adds: “Leadership from the independent sector has been sadly lacking and it has failed to provide an inspiring moral vision for us in the 21st century.”
Seldon said that in many ways, including “teaching, learning and leadership”, the state sector was ahead of the independent sector. Yet many public schools seemed blind to the value and necessity of sharing experiences and bringing pupils of different backgrounds together, he added.
Seldon’s comments will provoke fresh criticism of the Charities Commission, which ruled last week that public schools would no longer be forced to provide free or subsidised places to remain in business and can hang on to millions of pounds worth of tax breaks.
New guidance from the commission says that organisations will be required to provide benefits that are “more than minimal or tokenistic”. But the draft guidelines makes it clear that schools will be given more freedom to decide how to open up to the poor without necessarily providing free places.
Seldon writes that he believes the independent sector should embrace the academies programme in order to offset the critique that “Britain is becoming a less equal society, and independent schools are key in making it so”.
He writes: “Political reality further dictates the need for independent schools to wake up. In case they hadn’t noticed, neither Cameron nor [Michael] Gove, nor the Conservative party, have time for them as they are currently configured, still less do the Liberal Democrats or Labour, who might be in power from 2015. The public climate has moved decisively against their current stance too. Complaining of injustice is missing the point.
“They need to get on the front foot and sponsor academies, or join in federations of state schools. “
Seldon added: “British independent schools in the 21st century have lost their moral purpose. They lead the world in exams, but they are like faith in Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, with their authority retreating in a ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar’. “Leadership and courage are needed from public schools – two of their core virtues.”