It has been widely reported that David Cameron and Michael Gove have, in the last few days held a meeting with headteachers from a number of prestigious public schools including the PM’s almer mater (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14859876). The meeting with this already well-connected and privileged part of the education sector was apparently not intended to become public knowledge but it was surely very naive to imagine that the story would remain untold (particularly in the context of recent revelations of private meetings with newspaper magnates). It was a call by Dave and Michael to encourage these schools to raise their game in mentoring and supporting local state schools including some cases where they might take over the running of existing schools or establish new academies where the demand exists.
The partnership work that these men appear to have in mind could be useful and certainly needs to be fully explored. However as with any collaborative work involving private, state and charitable organisations, there are risks as well as opportunities. If the best practices and standards from these different organisational models are allowed to prevail then all sides could benefit (providing this is not a one way, top down, paternalistic transfer of ideas and resources). On the other hand if the motives at work here are not of the highest standard, then the result may be mission drift for the private schools (Tony Little, Head of Eton is on record as having expressed his concern that creating new state schools could distract private schools from their core role) and the asset stripping of state institutions and the public purse (plenty of sources on this). It is nevertheless vital that one cultural norm is not allowed to dominate, even if this norm is the one that Cameron and Gove have the most personal confidence in.
For some people one of the elephants in this particular room is the nature of the Private Schools themselves. In the last decade the worlds of business and charitable endeavour have become more complex. Whilst these schools were throwing obscene amounts of ‘charitable’ funds into their dialogue with the Charity Commission over public benefit tests, the concept of social enterprise has been emerging from the true voluntary and community sector. Social enterprise may provide something of a meeting point between these apparently conflicting worlds. If my reading of history is correct, some of these schools could match our most dynamic and innovative charities in their historical reach to deprived communities. In its day, Eton was a 15th century Kids Company although with Henry VI rather than Camila Batmanghelidjh as the driving force. However things have changed in the last 570 years and only a fool would suggest that Eton currently meets social need in the way that Kids Company does. Sanctimonious comments on the Schools website about providing a ‘distinctive education to any talented boy’ not withstanding.
My concerns regarding this meeting and the approach of Government revolve around consistency and integrity of purpose. There is clearly a huge disparity between the life chances of Princes and future Prime Ministers who can resource £30,000 pa in school fees and vulnerable citizens who all modern Governments are meant to plan for and protect. If creating links between some of the nations 2,500 Public Schools and the State Sector can help close this gap then there is every reason to talk. This Eton educated PM and his Secretary of State whose state schooling ended when he won a scholarship to Robert Gordons College, need to remember that their personal advantage is partly based on the institutionalised culture of privilege that these schools create for their scholars. Eton might well provide a first-rate education, but its pupils prosper as a result of many factors and simply partnering with Windsor Comp’ will never deliver all this opportunity to the state school.
Invitations to Meetings at No 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister of the day are not offered to many people, and many of us do accept, irrespective of our views of the incumbent and their party. It is an experience that will be remembered for months afterwards. If there are people who need to be affirmed in their work, or who cannot find agreement on difficult issues then this is one of the mechanisms open to the Government to try to make a difference. However if the Government is wanting to move forward an idea with willing participants in a business like way, then a meeting at DFE with the Secretary of State is surely a more adequate and appropriate approach to take. There is also a question over the reason why the Public Schools were meeting in isolation from the state schools and communities that are intended to be at the other side of this partnership endeavour. Finally we need to ask why in the context of a Government committed to localism, that such a meeting is taking place in this centralised manner. This was surely a meeting that would have made a great deal more sense if it had involved a representative group of public school heads, state heads and local authorities in a local setting.
If the reasons for holding this meeting are partly credible, the reasons for our Prime Minister to remain at least one step away from the discussions seem essential. Being one of the most recognisable old Etonians of his generation as well as the person ultimately in charge of the nations educational policy his presence at any such private meetings sends out an unfortunate signal. What happens if the state schools in any partnership are in conflict with their private sector colleagues. At least Gove is known to understand both the State and Public sectors, whereas Cameron’s position is currently much less clear. He did at least indicate in March 2010 through the Daily Mail that he intended to educate his own children in state secondary schools, explaining that Nancy and Elwen would not be attending fee paying schools. Perhaps this will offer some balance to his thinking in the future?