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Mon, 19 October 2020

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Independent schools can play a part in tackling regional inequality in education

Independent schools can play a part in tackling regional inequality in education

The Social Mobility Commission’s new report, ‘The Long Shadow of Deprivation’, highlights the role geography plays in opportunity and demonstrates how deep inequality is entrenched in the UK’s most deprived communities, writes Baroness Bull. | PA Images

4 min read

There is an urgent need to address geographical inequality in education. A programme of digitally-based partnerships between independent and state schools could support communities most in need.

The startling levels of educational inequality across the country were brought into sharp relief by Covid. Independent schools adjusted quickly to lockdown learning, with greater resources, and 97% of their students having access to a home computer.

The NFER estimate that over half of private school pupils completed at least four hours work a day, while one in five state school students had no access to teaching at all.

When the exams debacle erupted, disadvantaged pupils were hit hardest, deepening the chasm between haves and have-nots.

The government’s commitment to levelling up offers hope that the uneven playing field of our twin track education system might be rebalanced, and the universal experience of learning re-positioned as the equaliser it should be. In the meantime, there is an urgent need to address the educational deficit of young people today, especially those in the middle of GCSE and A level courses.

Responding to my question on September 2nd, Baroness Berridge, minister for school systems, assured me independent schools are ‘very keen to engage’ with this challenge.

Pre-Covid, the catalyst for (and limitations to) independent and state school partnerships – like those listed on the Schools Together website – has usually been co-location. This has sometimes led to independent schools partnering with state schools that are already relatively well-resourced.

Covid has dissolved normal boundaries and obstacles, creating new approaches to partnership

It’s hard to identify many silver linings in the Covid cloud, but one is undoubtedly the increased capacity across all schools to work online, making location irrelevant as a criterion for partnership. Virtual networks can now be established that enable systematic support for schools in the country’s most isolated and marginalised communities – communities unlikely to have an independent school in their midst, charitably-minded or not.

The Social Mobility Commission’s new report, ‘The Long Shadow of Deprivation’, highlights the role geography plays in opportunity and demonstrates how deep inequality is entrenched in the UK’s most deprived communities. In an online world, independent schools’ ambitions to support education more broadly are no longer geographically constrained.

So what might they do?

Government have established a National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to help state sector students. For the most part, funding only extends to age 16, with a small amount reserved for students over 16 who failed to get a grade 4 pass in English or Maths.

This funding excludes the vast majority of A-level students, which is precisely who independent schools have the most expertise in supporting. 16 year old private school pupils are primed by social and cultural contexts to be ready for university in a way their peers from the most disadvantaged areas of the country are not.

While there’s a strong argument for extending the NTP to over 16’s, there’s nothing to stop the network of independent schools from stepping in to fill the gap.

Their support could take many forms. Independent schools could pool resources and commit to offering a number of hours’ tutoring across any region of the country. They might offer specialist expertise private schools take for granted, such as Oxbridge interview prep. They might focus on Further Maths and Physics which have small cohorts, liable to be hit hard by staff illness. They could share connections, to give state school students the opportunity to access online work placements. Or, offer large-scale virtual masterclasses on a text for literature, or a topic for Geography.

The key point is that Covid has dissolved normal boundaries and obstacles, creating new approaches to partnership – a possibility already seized by some institutions. For example, Eton has extended its online offer to less advantaged pupils.

The key question is who is best placed to broker, facilitate and evaluate a strategic programme of digitally-based partnership between independent and state education sectors, that effectively supports communities most in need?

Independent schools have a track record of providing outstanding education for a tiny percentage of the population. A coordinated and decisive intervention at a moment-of-national-challenge, would make a case for their broader role in systematically tackling inequalities, helping to justify the often contentious charitable status they enjoy.

 

Baroness Bull is a crossbench member of the House of Lords. 

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