Academies are back in the news with the announcement by the Chancellor that he wants all schools to become academies by 2020. Academies are independent, state-funded schools which receive their funding directly from central government, rather than through a local authority. The day-to-day running of the school lies with the head teacher or principal, although they are overseen by individual charitable bodies and may be part of an academy chain. But where do independents stand on the question of academies? Samantha Price is Headmistress of Benenden School
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Head of Ofsted, made headlines when he told a recent conference that independent schools should sponsor academies or risk losing charitable status. His comments may be shrouded in a somewhat combative tone, but I agree with the central argument he is making – that independent schools have a moral obligation to support their counterparts in the maintained sector.
In truth I think Sir Michael is pushing at an open door, for most independent schools I know of are enthusiastically engaging with state schools. I agree wholeheartedly that independent schools, if they are not already, should be forging such partnerships – and there are many excellent examples – and, where resource allows, through the sponsorship of an academy.
The benefits of such partnerships are numerous. Since 2012 we have been sponsoring the John Wallis Church of England Academy in Ashford and are honoured to be a part of this marvellous school’s success. Our partnership working with John Wallis involves our schools’ Heads sitting on one another’s governing bodies; our pupils mentoring one another – for example, girls here were helping Year 6 students prepare for their SATs last month – and we frequently share opportunities: Whether it be jointly attending special chemistry days, off-site events or visiting speakers. We have also jointly launched a Combined Cadet Force and paraded publicly together for the first time at Remembrance Day in the village of Benenden.
This relationship provides invaluable two-way support and the opportunity to truly share excellent practice across the sectors.
Our outreach opportunities extend beyond our thriving partnership with John Wallis, and we enjoy strong relationships with the village community, with local schools and with other local organisations. We get as much out of these arrangements as anyone else: New experiences provide some of the most valuable education for young people. We educate the girls here at Benenden so that they are fully prepared for life: Not just leaving here with great exam results but so that they are confident, knowledgeable about the world and, above all, compassionate with a deep-rooted desire to help others.
It would be hypocritical if the School were not the embodiment of the compassion that we teach. Independent schools have a vital role to play in modern society, and a large part of that role is to engage with the community and to help others. I would hope independent schools don’t need Sir Michael Wilshaw, or anyone else for that matter, telling us that.