Pictured: science activities in the Partnerships Lab
A December Election – time for reflection
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School
There has been a late addition to the calendar for the last week of term. While we enjoy our usual festive programme of carol services, the community tea party, Christmas lunch and our mince pies, we’ll also be deciding which way to vote, now that an election has been called.
There are some other issues which I suspect will dominate the political agenda over the next few weeks but education will without doubt be one battleground. It will be intriguing to see how the different parties see independent schools fitting into the national picture.
Labour set out their stall back in September by backing a conference motion that called for the abolition of independent schools. Subsequent interviews with members of the Shadow Cabinet saw them moving back from this position, focusing instead on measures such as applying VAT on fees. The impact of such a measure needs to be considered carefully. Baines Cutler, the financial consultants, estimate that rather than saving money, it could end up costing UK taxpayers £146 million. It would have a huge impact on the independent sector, closing many smaller schools which provide particular expertise in areas such as special needs, and forcing fees higher for those schools which survive.
I hope therefore that the election might be an opportunity for us to reflect in a more measured and pragmatic way about the role that independent schools can and should play in the wider world of education.
It is not controversial to suggest that we all want to see a society where opportunities are available to all, regardless of their background or wealth. It is understandable that people perceive fee-paying schools as part of the problem but I hope that schools like Abingdon can in fact be part of the solution.
I’ve met many Old Abingdonians who attended Abingdon when it was part of the Direct Grant system in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. They received means-tested assistance from the state which allowed them to come to Abingdon even if family finances would not otherwise have covered the fees. These OAs are amongst the most passionate advocates for the education here. Real examples of the power of social mobility, they attribute their successes later in life to the great start that the School gave them.
The Direct Grant system was dismantled in the 1970s and its successor, the Assisted Places Scheme, ended in the early 1990s. We now have to find our own solutions so that pupils from as broad a range of backgrounds as possible can join us. This is why we are committed to a programme of fundraising for our bursaries fund. At present, 58 boys benefit from means-tested discounts to their fees but we would like to do much more. Our aim is to arrive at the point where our admissions process is completely ‘needs blind’, so that pupils can join the School whatever their financial position.
We can also do more to enable all young people to thrive by playing our part in the local community through our partnerships programme. We are forging ever closer links with maintained schools in and around Abingdon to allow pupils and staff to collaborate with one another and to learn from one another. During the last academic year, Abingdon School in Partnership enabled over 6000 ‘experiences’ (individual visits from students, families or visiting teachers), involving over 200 Abingdon students. We aim to do more this year.
I want the School to play a full part in the local community. I also think that it is invaluable for our pupils to appreciate their connection with the local community and to learn to work with people who bring different perspectives and experiences.
I believe that the way to build a more equitable society is by bringing people together but I also think that parents should have the freedom to make decisions as to how they want to educate their children.
Our independent sector includes many different types of school which are equipped in different ways to play their part in the wider educational landscape. There is real appetite across the sector to ensure that our schools play a full and positive part in the nation’s education and to help every child receive the world-class education that they deserve. I hope, as our new government digests its Christmas dinner, it will embrace and harness that desire.