Written for The Times, 26th June 2012
Yesterday’s announcement that Liverpool College is to become an academy is perhaps the single biggest breach in the Berlin Wall between the private and state sectors of education in recent decades. It opens the way for many more private schools to join the state-funded system – giving up fees but maintaining their independence, ethos and excellence.
Liverpool College is among the oldest and most prestigious of the great “public” schools. Built for Liverpool’s rising merchant class, it was opened by Gladstone (the greatest and proudest son of that class) in 1843 and became a founding member of the Headmasters’ Conference group of public schools in 1869. Its alumni include Sir Simon Rattle and Lord Justice Leveson.
From the outset of the academies policy under the last Government, it was my aim that good private schools should become academies, particularly in cities where social divisions are so great and the need for excellent state schools is so acute. I wanted to create a modern version of the old direct grant scheme under which nearly 200 high-performing private schools were state-funded until that was ended in the 1970s. (Liverpool College wasn’t among them: it was far too grand.)
The academy deal is simple. The private school gives up fees and the 11-plus but in every other respect – ethos, governance, management – remains as before. As for selection, they will recruit city-wide, and they are encouraged to expand their sixth forms, so they have no difficulty attracting a large number of able students and maintaining high academic standards within an all-ability intake.
None of this is mere assertion. It is the actual experience of five excellent lesser-known private schools – including Belvedere School, an ex-direct grant girls school also in Liverpool – which have become academies over the past decade. The others are Bristol Cathedral Choir School, Colston Girls School in Bristol, William Hulme Grammar School in Manchester and Batley Grammar School. All of them are thriving. Their results remain very strong; their ethos is unchanged minus the old social elitism; and none of them would think of going back.
All this weighed with Hans Broekman, Liverpool College’s headmaster, and his governors, as they considered how their school could better serve Liverpool as a whole.
There is also a significant economic factor at play. For many private schools the chill is serious, particularly in the Midlands and the north. They have been pricing themselves steadily higher, with above-inflation fee rises year after year for several decades. A number will not survive.
Liverpool College is not in this stark position: it was more than strong enough to continue as a fee-paying school. But with day fees of nearly £10,000 a year this would have been at the price of increasing social exclusivity or the recruitment of more overseas students. It is no accident that Hans Broekman, with his background in the Netherlands and US, is interested in making quality education widely available to overcome England’s class divisions.
The current half dozen private school academies could become a group of 50 or 100, substantially eroding the divide between private and state education. However, this will only happen if ministers will the means. Bringing these private schools into academy status is a huge job of leadership and negotiation.
It also requires bipartisan policy. Both Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and Stephen Twigg, his Labour shadow, strongly support Liverpool College’s initiative. The governors of the great private schools hold their schools in trust, as charities, in perpetuity. Unless they are confident that future governments will safeguard their independence, they will run a mile – or more precisely, back to fees, exclusivity, and the old class system.