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How independent is the independent sector?
‘It is surely one of education’s great paradoxes that recent proposals by the Blair and Cameron governments to make the state sector more independent should come just at a time when the independent sector has become less autonomous’, suggests Mark Peel...
 Historically, schools enjoyed
great autonomy which enabled incompetent teachers to survive unchecked, for various abuses to fester and for pupils’ potential to go unful lled.
This began to change during
the 1980s when education, like other public services, was coming under increasing public scrutiny. Determined to raise academic standards, the Thatcher and Major governments stripped state schools of much of their autonomy by imposing a national curriculum,
a beefed-up national inspectorate and compulsory publication of exam results. These reforms,
while much less applicable to the independent sector, nevertheless had repercussions it felt it couldn’t ignore. The dislike of league tables has been a familiar complaint over the years, chie y because they penalise schools with a selective intake and sti e creativity by teaching to the test, but they have undoubtedly forced schools to make academic attainment a much higher priority.
Equally far-reaching has been
the onset of inspection. With the establishment of the Of ce of Standards in Education [Ofsted],
the HMC, sensing the way that
the wind was blowing, set up the Independent Schools Inspectorate, a government-approved agency, under the leadership of a former inspector and overseen by Ofsted, which inspected schools every six years and made its reports public. Although this greater public scrutiny and the introduction of teacher appraisal
has inhibited gifted mavericks
from roaming over broad acres of education, independent schools still give enterprising teachers greater freedom to teach in their own style.
During his  nal year at Rugby, the headmaster Patrick Derham, now headmaster of Westminster, was observing one of his new English teachers and impressed by the stimulating classroom discussion about gender stereotypes, asked
him why he ended his discussion prematurely. When the teacher responded that he needed to stick to his lesson plan, Derham assured him that he was now in a school which could afford to take risks. According to Rod MacKinnon, headmaster
of Bristol Grammar School, the secret of independent schools,
as he discovered  rst-hand from being on both sides of the fence, ‘is the freedom we have to focus on what really matters in a child’s development at school. We thrive precisely because we do not have to respond to the latest educational whim from a centralised education bureaucracy; well-meant initiatives perhaps, but all too often the product of muddled thinking.’
Inspection has also been critical
in the  eld of welfare provision, a much-needed innovation given the culture of abuse that had prevailed in some schools. The Children Act 1989 compelled local authority social service departments to implement annual checks on pupils’ welfare in independent schools and laid down appropriate standards of accommodation, privacy, discipline and complaints procedures, while the Care Standards Act 2000 removed from local and health authorities the powers of registration and inspection and gave them to a new public authority, the National Care Standards Commission, which oversaw far stricter standards in boarding schools. With schools now compelled to provide a lengthy document of self-evaluation each year regarding child protection they
have found the excess of paperwork to be debilitating, but pastoral care has now been elevated to a matter of supreme importance.
The growing gap between state and independent education, as measured by league tables and university admissions, prompted some fresh thinking by Andrew Adonis, Tony Blair’s education adviser, when surveying those comprehensives that suffered from the dead hand of local councillors and central bureaucracies. State education was a poor substitute
if any substitute at all, for good teaching, good leadership and good governance school by school, he opined. Inventing the concept of independent state schools, Adonis later wrote that ‘Everything about academies is in the DNA of the successful private school: independence, excellence, innovation and social mission’.
As part of his mission to build
a more cohesive society and
help the independent sector rediscover its charitable roots, Adonis looked to those schools to sponsor an academy by assuming complete or partial responsibility for its governance. Although
few responded to the Labour government’s invitation the question of academies caught on with the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. The prime minister David Cameron invited a delegation of independent school headmasters to Downing Street
in 2011 and appealed to them for help, but many of them thought
it too great a diversion of time
and resources, an approach that affronted Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools. He warned
the HMC in 2013 that haughty detachment would only provide
ammunition for those who would like even stricter quotas to be applied to university admissions.
The resignation of Cameron saw no let-up in the Conservative government’s desire to enhance social mobility. In September 2016 the  rst policy announcement
of Theresa May’s government, ‘Working for Everyone’, proposed that independent schools should either offer a certain proportion of places as fully-funded bursaries or set up an academy or a free school on pain of losing charitable status, a threat that the Blair and Brown governments had held over them, unless they passed a public bene t test. The sector responded by pointing to the substantial increase in bursaries and the closer links it had forged with state schools and local communities, but political pressure has also pushed it down the road of social outreach, and future governments may well end charitable status regardless.
In conclusion the growing emphasis on public accountability has affected the independent sector,
so that while this intervention has been time-consuming, expensive and bureaucratic it has brought improvements in food, warmth, facilities, security and pastoral care, along with greater responsibilities for all. It is also the case that, compared to the state sector, the independent sector still enjoys greater independence and has used that freedom to pioneer alternative exams and expand the range of sports and activities on offer. Yet this is no time for complacency. Governments of all hues are prone to interference and responsible independence in education as
we know it, is a concept worth
preserving.
  Mark Peel – author of The New Meritocracy. A History of UK Independent Schools 1979-2015, Elliott and Thompson, 2015
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