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Controversy swirls constantly around the principle of selection in education, and how it is practised, at schools and universities that are oversubscribed. The pledge by Theresa May, UK prime minister, to return to the argument over expanding academically selective state grammar schools has revived old battles over the nature of educational ability, achievement versus potential and whether institutions are best serving the goal of improved social mobility as well as excellence.
Quietly, however, some private schools have been pursuing their own attempts to improve access through partnerships with innovative taxpayer-funded school networks, and by expanding a new model of bursaries for boarders.
The experiments provide a model that other schools and colleges could follow in seeking to prove that they spread the benefits of the education they provide to the wider public — a key test of their status as charitable foundations.
Last month, the first inspection report from Ofsted, the education watchdog, praised a sixth form academy set up in 2014 by the prestigious Westminster School and the Harris chain of academies for establishing “an environment in which students thrive in a community of scholars”. For two years running, half the students who stayed until school-leaving age have secured places at leading universities.
Selected via an entrance exam and interview, priority is given to pupils entitled to free school meals, the standard measurement for child deprivation in the UK. In both years there are around 30 per cent in this category.
James Handscombe, the principal, tweeted that he was “appropriately chuffed” by the inspectorate’s glowing report. Patrick Derham, Westminster’s headteacher, says he is “absolutely thrilled” at the swift success. “Seven terms into the project it’s outstanding on all counts and we had seven Oxbridge places this year.”
Mr Derham’s central London school, mostly boys but with girls admitted to study A-levels, charges high fees for what has become a funnel to the top: half of all Westminster pupils go on to study at Oxford or Cambridge.
Critics say the Harris Westminster Sixth Form uses public money to reinforce the reputation of a top institution not lacking in advocates or profile: Labour MP Margaret Hodge called it an expensive “vanity project”. Such critics should be answered, says Mr Handscombe, if he can equal Westminster’s Oxbridge entrance rate and see his own pupils in top government posts: “Then we’ll have better people running the country.”
Mr Derham, himself rescued from a difficult childhood by a scholarship to private school, is unrepentant about schemes to spread excellent pedagogy, alongside wider reforms such as improved vocational and technical education, and better pre-school provision for children.
“Tinkering with school structures isn’t the answer,” he says, in an implied rebuke to the continuing political punch-up. “All the data show it’s the quality of the teacher and it’s what happens in the classroom.”
In his previous role as head of Rugby School, Mr Derham established the Arnold Foundation, which radically expanded scholarships: the school selected boys and girls for whom boarding provided a better environment for learning than a sometimes turbulent home life.
That model has since been adopted by the SpringBoard Foundation, set up in 2012 after McKinsey consultants provided pro-bono research on how to scale up the scheme. SpringBoard now helps both private and state boarding schools take children from deprived backgrounds, particularly those in care homes.
“We do an enormous amount of due diligence,” says Ian Davenport, a former investment banker who left the City to become an economics teacher and now runs SpringBoard: “Being at boarding school is not for everyone.” But he argues that there are benefits broader than the boost to education and life chances. So far 200 or so pupils have taken part. The scheme provides “110 per cent bursaries” (fees plus all extra costs).
“There is also the subtle but important nuance that the more socially broad the careers that our pupils then follow, the greater the effect on social mobility,” he says. An independent evaluation of the scheme by the National Federation for Educational Research, just published, points to a positive “ripple effect” on the schools and communities from which the pupils came, with young people “acting as positive role models and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps”.
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