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Let’s have a better debate on the role of private schools

The Labour Party’s commitment to introduce VAT on private school fees has been the topic of frenzied debate in recent months.

However, the related commitment to retain the charitable status of independent schools seems to have gone under the radar.

This lack of clarity among politicians and commentators alike has been the cause of great frustration to those of us working in the cross-sector ‘school partnerships’ space.

Our governors tend to think in decades rather than electoral cycles

Around half of independent schools run as charities, including the vast majority of the larger urban day schools, like the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

Here in the north east, we are showing that when schools invest their charitable relief in genuinely two-way partnerships with local schools, the results can be transformational.

In the past academic year, our partnerships programme reached over 100 local schools.

We have a sustainable scheme of 50 activities from STEM to sport, reaching over 10,000 young people each year, often from the areas of greatest disadvantage in a city with pockets of 40 per cent child poverty.

The key to growing this work has been a genuine spirit of co-creation. Indeed, it is very much a conscious decision to replace the word ‘outreach’ (with its connotations of patronage) to ‘partnerships’.

As Heidi Heinemann wrote in these pages, “without careful consideration… cross-sector work can perpetuate inequality and classism”.

‘We’ve developed a sustainable model’

Historically, partnership work has drawn on the goodwill of individual staff and spare capacity in the independent sector; this approach tended to result in projects that lacked longitudinal impact.

Instead, we have developed a model that is both sustainable and scalable by bringing together local business and charitable foundations to pool resources towards common local goals.

This spirit of co-missioning has allowed us to build a collaborative model supporting a team of STEM teachers across maths, physics, robotics and computing.

These teachers deliver and facilitate a range of projects alongside local teachers, schools and organisations.

One of the highlights of this term was a GCSE maths revision day, where six schools benefited from a morning of intensive activities.

Content and delivery was shared among teachers from both the state and independent sectors, facilitated by our funded maths teacher.

A similar programme has worked well in physics, and we have a well-established robotics and coding offer from primary age upwards.

‘Tech leaps have allowed innovative programmes’

Meanwhile, technological leaps brought about by the pandemic have allowed innovative programmes such as our hybrid model of delivering further maths GCSE to flourish.

Alongside another independent school, Westfield, we deliver this qualification to students from schools where it is not offered.

Students choose between weekly online and in-person sessions, with the curriculum running concurrently across these sessions.

Last summer, around 80 children received a qualification they wouldn’t have achieved otherwise, one-quarter of these results were at grade 9.

The incoming cohort has attracted around 120 students from schools across the region – all supported by two independent schools with an innovative and enterprising approach to school partnerships, made possible by the imperative of public benefit.

Regardless of opinions on the rights and wrongs of VAT on fees, independent schools can and do play an important role in a thriving school eco-system.

For those of us on the ground striving to mobilise a spirit of authentic joint mission, the lever of charitable status is key.

For a school like RGS Newcastle, coming up to its 500th anniversary, there is a real sense of custodianship among governors towards the broader educational benefit of the school. They tend to think in decades and centuries rather than electoral cycles.

In the current climate of educational crises around recruitment, retention, attendance, mental health and much more, we must move forward in a spirit of partnership and collaboration if we are to unlock the infinite potential of our young people.

As one governor put it to me recently, ‘it takes a city to educate its children’.

Political point-scoring by driving divisions between state and independent schools at best ignores this important work. At worst, they undermine it. The Labour Party appears to have recognised that through its policies, and commentators should follow suit.

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