Alan Duncan: Our schools should work together

From left, Catmose College principal Stuart Williams, Oakham School headteacher Nigel Lashbrook and Uppingham Community College principal Jan Turner. EMN-140317-155141001

From left, Catmose College principal Stuart Williams, Oakham School headteacher Nigel Lashbrook and Uppingham Community College principal Jan Turner. EMN-140317-155141001

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This week the Labour Shadow Education spokesman proposed penalising private schools by withdrawing business rate relief unless they can prove they are doing more to support state schools.

The Government is all for encouraging a closer relationship between successful private schools and those in the state sector. Indeed, this already happens through sponsorship of academies and formal and informal sharing of services and teachers.

It is important, however, in debates like this to avoid mistaking a symptom for a cause. No-one would argue against the need to increase social mobility or deny that we need to do more to open up professions that remain skewed towards the privately educated. This is true of the high levels of the judiciary, the armed forces, the civil service, the media and Parliament. Despite the caricature to the contrary, Parliament is increasingly less-dominated by the privately educated. Progress, however, is undeniably slow.

The principal means of improving social mobility, however, is to improve the quality of state schools, not to seek to diminish the quality of private schools. Only seven per cent of children in the UK are educated privately. The vast majority (86 per cent) attend comprehensive schools. This is where the Government’s focus should be and indeed where it has been since coming into office. We should level up, not level down.

The expansion of academies, which devolves independence to schools themselves is a radical shake-up that, broadly speaking, has been welcomed by headteachers.

Indeed, just as we are encouraging independent schools to sponsor or set up state schools that would benefit from their involvement, successful state secondary schools, such as John Ferneley in Melton are enthusiastically forming Multi-Academy Trusts with other schools, driving up standards in failing schools elsewhere.

Already since the last election there are 800,000 more children in good or outstanding schools and there has been a 60 per cent rise in the number of children taking the core subjects they need to get on. We have also striven to toughen up the National Curriculum to increase the rigour of the education pupils receive.

In Rutland we are well-served by both state and private schools, with Uppingham and Oakham Schools attracting students from all over the country, and Stamford across the border educating many of those resident in Rutland.

But we also have Rutland County College, which continues to go from strength to strength, as well as Uppingham Community College, Catmose College and Casterton Business and Enterprise College.

We should encourage collaboration where it is has positive results. People will make up their mind as to whether they think independent schools are doing enough and, if not, whether the Government should be using the carrot or the stick to encourage 
them.

Whatever the right answer is, we should avoid using lazy stereotypes or think that the way to improve the chances of those in the 86 per cent in comprehensive education is to restrict the opportunities of those in the seven per cent in private education.

We should be constantly striving to be a genuinely meritocratic society, while acknowledging that we can always go further towards achieving it.