In the recent upsurge of debate over the place of independent schools in our society, the sector’s advocates have rightly pointed to the scale and breadth of its commitment to outreach and widening access.
Independent schools are doing more than ever to share their educational benefits. The continuing expansion of cross-sector partnerships, the growing investment in bursarial provision to support thousands of pupils who would not otherwise have access to independent schools, bilateral relationships such as academy sponsorship, and ‘softer’ structures to facilitate collaborative professional learning, are all evidence of a profound commitment to breaking down barriers.
The value of independent schools to local economies is unarguable, but not only in terms of direct employment. The mutual dependency between schools and the suppliers, contractors and other local businesses that maintain their fabric and facilities is very real. The positive local impact can run into millions of pounds in terms of goods and services.
However, there is an even more powerful argument to be made for the independent sector, but it requires a re-framing of the terms of the debate. The most significant challenges facing the UK education over the coming decades will require a pooling and collaborative mobilisation of expertise and resources from across the sectors and tiers. This is not simply to meet the workforce needs of the economy, but to ensure that we can produce emotionally and physically healthy citizens, who are culturally literate and capable of exercising their civic agency in a diverse society, but also in a world of extraordinary challenges – including environmental change, an ageing population, and the increasing impact of artificial intelligence and machine learning on various facets of daily life.
Other challenges are even more immediate. The precipitate decline in the numbers of pupils studying French and German threatens to diminish access by future generations to employment in two major economies, as well as narrowing cultural literacy. The challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers, notably in STEM subjects, remains acute. The growing demands on adolescent mental health services, and the increasing expectation on schools to up-skill their own provision, will place further challenges on already stretched budgets (in institutions of all types). The narrowing of curricular offers at Sixth Form, due to resource limitations, constrains the post-18 opportunities for ever growing numbers of pupils. How do we ensure that young people regardless of background can access the cultural capital that is more readily accessible in more advantaged contexts?
When seen in the context of these challenges, the narrower debate over independent schools seems of secondary importance. The plurality of educational provision within the UK should be recognised as a strength, because the diversity of institutional culture and process, and the distribution of expertise, presents opportunities for the exchange of skills and knowledge in areas such as curriculum, teaching and learning, pastoral care, and the effective use of technology.
The overarching question is how we coordinate and harness strength in diversity to meet the challenges facing UK education, both now and in the future. This will need structured collaboration, at regional and national levels, between the sectors. But to really stand a chance in tackling these major issues, this collaboration will also need to bridge the secondary and tertiary tiers. More cross-sector and cross-tier collaborative matrices will be needed, for example through the development of regionally based networks of schools, colleges and universities, to ensure wider access to subject areas such as MFL.
This move to a more collaborative model may require institutional boundaries to become more porous, where pupil membership of a single body is combined with multiple affiliations relating to the learning of a particular subject or course. We may need to envisage models where pupils have a ‘home’ institution where they receive most of their teaching, but which also brokers access to courses and subjects that are only available from other sources (be they schools, colleges, universities or via online providers). Independent schools could consider more financially differentiated models of access, segmenting their offer to enable specific courses to be taken at Sixth Form level without requiring commitment to the whole.
In order to bridge gaps between subject demand and local and provision, technological solutions could be more extensively utilised to support learning where distance would otherwise present barriers to accessing a particular subject or course of study. We need more structured and accessible free-to access banks of learning resources, including videos of lessons. The role of Artificial Intelligence in enhancing learning is as yet in its infancy, but may have a significant role to play in ways that are as yet unforeseeable, especially for the role of the teacher. Additional provision outside term-time, including hands-on work in subjects where practical work is integral to the syllabus, could be offered in specialist hubs that bridge education’s sectors and tiers, where pupils could also receive specialist advice in support of university applications in disciplines where those who are less advantaged remain under-represented.
Cross-sector and cross-tier collaboration is already having positive effects in the education of thousands of pupils across the UK. (Work in subjects such as Physics and Classics stand out.) However in order to address the future challenges facing UK education, a more ambitious collaborative vision will be needed. There is huge appetite from UK independent schools to play a significant collaborative role in the future of education. But first we need a shift in political discourse away from the rhetoric of division, and towards a recognition that all sectors and tiers have a collaborative role in educating the coming generations.