The Schools Bill, one of the Government’s principal measures in the new Session of Parliament, had its Second Reading in the Lords on 23 May. Alistair Lexden used his speech to review the state of relations between independent schools and the Government, which will not be adversely affected by this Bill.
I declare my interests as a former General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council, which accredits and represents some 1,400 schools, and as the current President of the Independent Schools Association, one of the Council’s constituent bodies, which has some 580 of those schools in its membership.
The Association’s members are for the most part small in size, often having no more than 200 pupils, with deep roots in their local communities. Striving always to keep fees down and providing as much in the way of bursaries as they can, these schools are far removed from the stereotyped image of Britain’s independent education sector, packed with grand, expensive institutions, which dwells so stubbornly and unfairly in the public mind.
The members of this Association are far more representative of the true state of the independent sector today than the comparatively small number of well-known schools, which exert so much fascination over the media.
What all the diverse members of the Independent Schools Council have in common is a commitment to high standards, and to working in partnership with colleagues in the maintained sector in a whole host of different ways, from academic teaching to orchestral concerts, drama and sport. Much is being done; much more is needed.
Many independent schools continue to hope that a Government will one day have the wisdom to back a scheme that would enable even more families to gain access to them. It is now more than 20 years since I published proposals for places at all levels of ability co-funded by the Government and the schools themselves.
The schools’ own efforts to make places more widely available continue to expand. They now provide fee assistance, including scholarships and bursaries worth £964 million, to 158,000 pupils. The resources devoted to these programmes absorb—indeed exceed—the benefit derived from charitable status, which the Labour Party wishes to abolish. Does it really want to reverse the progress that has been made in making independent schools more open and inclusive? It has put forward a deeply regressive measure.
It was good to hear the Secretary of State for Education say recently that he is “ very proud” of the work that independent schools are undertaking in conjunction with partners in the maintained sector. Collaboration brings marked benefits to both. As he rightly noted, their combined resources can help overcome the difficulties facing disadvantaged pupils in Britain today.
Part 4 of the Bill directly affects the interests of independent schools. New measures relating to registration and inspection are to be introduced. Some have the welcome objective—widely commended in this debate-- of making certain independent educational institutions outside the Independent Schools Council, which have for years evaded any effective checks, subject to proper regulation at last.
For their part, independent schools have always accepted that it is the Government’s right—indeed duty—to determine the basic legal standards and requirements that they must meet in order to be registered and play their part in the education system.
They accept without reservation or complaint that registration requirements will from time to time need to be revised and updated.
The guiding principle in making changes should be the strengthening of public confidence. Judged against that principle, the Council and its members have no quarrel with those clauses in Part 4 of the Bill, which have a direct bearing on them.
The most significant is Clause 60, which will give Ministers new powers to suspend the registration of an independent school for a specific period in circumstances where pupils are judged to be at risk of harm.
At present, the Department for Education ’s only option is to get a magistrate’s order to close down the school. At a time of widespread concerns over safeguarding issues, the proposed change should surely be seen as an entirely appropriate step.
I have just one specific point to raise about Part 4. Clause 59 introduces a new test under which the Secretary of State will determine whether the proprietors of independent schools are “fit and proper persons.” Perhaps my noble friend the Minister would let me know during the Bill’s passage what exactly this test will involve.
This is a Government which understands the value of independent schools. It must continue to give them the encouragement they deserve to contribute even more fully to our country’s education system.