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Graeme Brown: State schools should encourage their pupils to apply for independent schools

Graeme_brown Graeme Brown, a primary school governor and former PPC for Ashton-under-Lyne, says independent schools need the co-operation of state ones if they are to help poorer children.

The Charity Commission announced last week that it would publish guidance for independent schools that would require them to show that they offered a public benefit if they wanted to retain their charitable status. In particular, independent schools must prove that they are not 'exclusive clubs' but are 'outward-looking and inclusive'. Dan Hannan and Melanie Phillips among others have already written, far more eloquently than I can, about whether the Charity Commission should be publishing such guidance. I would like to offer some thoughts, from my own experience, of how the state can help the independent sector help children from poorer backgrounds.

I am a governor of a primary school in South London. It's in the middle of a relatively deprived area. Many of the children who attend the school have English as a second language, many are recent immigrants, and more than 50% qualify for free-school meals. The choice of state secondary schools open to the kids and their parents is not inspiring. About a year ago, I approached a well-known independent secondary school in South London, to make tentative enquiries about encouraging the kids at my Primary to apply to the school and about the scholarships available. The independent school could not have been more helpful. It invited me to bring a teacher from my Primary to look around the school and discuss how we could work together to enable kids from my Primary to apply. Optimistic with the enthusiasm of the independent school, I asked the Head of my Primary to give some dates when a teacher and I could visit the independent school. Despite repeated reminders, I never got a commitment on a date, and no-one from my Primary has visited the independent school with me.

For the independent sector to really help kids from poorer backgrounds and pass the 'outward-looking and inclusive' test set by the Charity Commission, they need the help and co-operation of teachers at state primary schools. Teachers at state primaries need to be aware of the opportunities available and encourage their pupils and their parents to apply to independent schools. If Heads, teachers and LEA officials are not supportive of their primary school pupils applying for, and getting into independent schools, then it will be much harder for the independent sector to broaden their intake as the government wishes.

It is easy to generalise teachers in the state sector as being hostile to the independent sector and I have no idea if the teachers at my primary school are. I know how hard teachers in my primary school work, and I am proud of how well-behaved and polite the kids are. But I feel that these kids are missing out on opportunities that the independent sector is only too willing to provide. If the government really wants independent schools to take in more kids from poorer backgrounds, it should focus less on bullying the independent sector, and perhaps focus more on persuading its own employees in the state sector that they need to do more to encourage the children in their care, and their parents, to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the independent sector.


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