Education & Family

Private-state school partnerships: Workable? Desirable?

Merchant Taylors' School, Liverpool Image copyright Other
Image caption Merchant Taylors' Girls' School is an independent, day school for girls aged 11-18.

The Labour party says if it is elected it will force private schools to do more with the state sector or risk losing their business rate relief. But do partnerships between private and state schools work?

A Mandarin lesson is under way in the 17th Century oak-panelled library at Merchant Taylors' school in Liverpool. It's one of the new languages on the school's curriculum.

From January, for half of the week, the school with share the skills of the teacher with a local state primary. It's part of the school's outreach work that aims to raise the aspirations of 25 local primary school pupils.

Merchant Taylors' costs around £11,000 a year in school fees. The school says it tries to share what it has with local state schools.

'We have a huge outreach programme," says headmistress Louise Robinson.

"We've done a poetry competition, we host local primary netball competitions, we allow people to use our swimming pool, we run chess competitions… We have an annual careers evening where we invite other schools to come. We've also done leadership days for girls."

Derby High School has a similarly long list of partnership projects. It has links to 23 state schools in the surrounding area. But the projects fall short of the meaty proposals Labour has talked about, such as sponsoring an academy or lending out a specialist teacher.

"I find that suggestion completely unworkable," says the school's headmistress Denise Gould.

"I staff the school year-on-year with the number of staff I actually need.

"I don't have extra staff sitting in the staffroom twiddling their thumbs and no school does."

Image copyright Other
Image caption Derby High School headmistress Denise Gould

Mrs Gould worked in state schools for 25 years before moving into private education. She says she is horrified by the suggestion that specialist, independent school teachers should be parachuted in to help out state schools.

"I maintain that state school colleagues are experts in their context and they don't need us to fly in and save them.

"And as someone who has sat in those staffrooms, I would be quite incensed by the idea that somehow we didn't have the expertise."

As registered charities, private schools are supposed to list what public benefit they provide on the Charity Commission website, along with the kinds of partnerships in which they are engaged.

However, it is not always easy to work out exactly what they are doing. Some private schools include exhaustive details while others simply say they are abiding by the Charity Commission's guidance.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) admits this lack of transparency can be a problem.

"If there is one mea culpa in all of this, it is that we haven't done what we're normally very good at doing, which is sort of blowing our own trumpet," says Charlotte Vere, the ISC's general secretary.

The organisation says it is going to set up a website in the future to list the partnerships of all the 1,200 schools it represents.

That may make things clearer but there are those who question the value of links between private and state schools in the first place.

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Image caption In 2013, Liverpool College switched from being a private school to a publicly funded academy

Liverpool College used to run a series of events with local schools including ancient Greek lessons and jazz workshops.

That was when it was a private school.

"We would invite the local primary school kids to join us and they loved it… but I don't think it had any impact, you know there was nothing quite like the impact of giving a kid a free place at Liverpool College," says Hans Van Maurik Broekman.

He has a unique perspective on the public benefit of private schools. In September 2013, under his leadership, the 140-year-old private college became a state school academy.

Now that he is in the other camp he is sceptical that his school has anything to learn from his fee-paying neighbours.

"At the moment, and this is no disrespect, I can't think of anything that the independent sector immediately around us will offer except they play us in sport fixtures."

However, many private schools don't see partnerships with state schools as their main public benefit, preferring instead to focus on the free or subsidised places they offer.

"We have about a million pounds set aside every year for our bursary fund. It is the be all and end all for me," says Louise Robinson from Merchant Taylors' School.

"It can change a girl or a boy's life forever.

"It gives them opportunities and experiences that they just wouldn't otherwise get anywhere else."

Currently 8% of private school students receive a bursary worth an average of £7,894 a year and 1% of pupils get 100% of their fees waived.

However, Hans Van Maurik Broekman is sceptical of whether bursaries do offer much public benefit.

"I know how bursaries work; they are used as an enrolment tool," he says.

"If I have a scholarship at Uppingham and my fees are therefore reduced by £8,000… the fees would still be over £22,000."

Private schools argue they are already saving the taxpayer £3bn a year by removing children from the state system.

But some of the public seem keen on politicians putting the squeeze on independent schools. A recent poll for You Gov suggested 41% of people were in favour of private schools losing all of their tax breaks and their charitable status.

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