Coffee House

Westminster School opens a free school

20 April 2013

9:08 PM

20 April 2013

9:08 PM

Guests at The Spectator’s schools conference on  Thursday arrived via the stunning grounds of Westminster School (above), one of the best not just in the country but  the world. It was fitting setting. The great irony about the British schools debate is that while our state schools may languish at 25th place in the global rankings, our private schools are first. It’s not as if Britain can’t do teaching: we can, better than anyone. What we can’t seem to do is expand what’s good. Michael Gove’s Academies Act allowed any private school to open a state school and expand — but they have been slow to respond.

Now Westminster School has teamed up with the Harris Federation  to open a sixth form which will educate 250 pupils for free. It will be academically-selective (free schools can be, at sixth-form level) and it is an example of the way to save British education.

As I argued in my Telegraph column yesterday, free schools are expanding at a discouragingly slow rate. They educate 0.4 per cent of pupils now, and it may be 0.8 per cent in 2015. They may become as good as the best private schools, but it may take ages. Westminster School another way: to take one of the best educational models in the land, and expand it.  Together with Harris, it will give children from ordinary backgrounds an education that would be beyond the means of all but the superrich.

I share Andrew Adonis’s frustration that Britain’s brilliant private schools have shown so little interest in sponsoring state schools. I blame the ownership model. Most of these grand schools are run by trustees of charities, who prefer an easy life. Why take the risk of opening a new school that may go wrong and damage your reputation? Charities tend not to expand: their remit is to look after one school and that’s it.

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This is why I’m in favour of profitseeking companies, which have accounted for the vast majority of school expansion in Sweden. They will go wherever demand is greatest – often sink estates. In Sweden, some debate whether non-profitseeking schools should be banned – because they tend to be lazier, preferring waiting lists to expansion. To many Swedes, profitseeking model is the surest guarantor of social justice.

In my more illiberal moments, I wonder if all private schools should be forced to be run as profitseeking companies just so they would have an incentive to expand. But perhaps the mood is changing. Westminster School should be warmly congratulated for sharing with wider society its incredible education formula, and in letting 250 children have a far better chance – not just at university, but at life.

The Old Labour definition of fairness is to snarl at private schools. The Conservative way should be to expand excellence. If David Cameron doesn’t mess up the next election (a big if, I know) then school reform will be irreversible and within 10-15 years all secondary education could be run by about 15-20 different school chain groups. If Westminster is one of them, then its current management will have achieved something historic.

Other private school head teachers should look at this and ask: what do I want to achieve? Sit here, jack up fees and educate the spoiled and often dim sons and daughters of the global elite – or take my school’s ethos and talents and project it nationally, bringing it to hundreds, perhaps thousands of bright kids?

As the saying goes: the future of a country is not decided on a battlefield, but determined in a classroom. Westminster’s linkup with Harris is the kind of alliance that could transform education in Britain. We need far, far more of it.

UPDATE: As CoffeeHousers point out, this has happened before – no fewer than eight private schools, including Eton, have put their name to a sixth form college for 200, slightly smaller than that which Westminster and Harris are setting up.

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Show comments
  • emma_rosen1@hotmail.com

    This is a model my Private secondary school chose to follow. However, it led to too much
    investment in expansion, and not enough in the students actually in the school.
    The problem with profit seeking companies running this system is they will not
    necessarily do what is best for the students, but what is best for the profit margin.
    In fairness, a school such as Westminster likely has enough funds to balance
    both, but this model only works for the super-rich public school. It is unachievable
    for the vast majority of private and even public schools.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Iain-Hill/100000917822376 Iain Hill

    Wil Westminster’s best teachers teach there?

  • JamesdelaMare

    The direction of this article is wrong. The public schools like Westminster and fifty others do not exist to bolster up the quality of education for thousands of “state” pupils who cannot afford the fees. They exist for various reasons (see what their founders intended) and, like their equivalents in the “state” sector, they try to give the best education to pupils who themselves range widely in ability, but above a minimum standard. Parents entrust their children to the school and pay for that service, as they’d pay for anything else. They are perceived (perhaps criticised enviously) as centres of privilege and elitism instead of being welcomed for their accomplishments in educating more average children better than they might be elsewhere.

    If these schools try to take on 200 or more sixth form pupils, how are they expected to do so in practical terms? That is easy to a journalist or politician to suggest, but it’s the school and its staff who must find the means (the space, resources, time, priorities, feeding and maybe boarding arrangements) to do so properly without the disruption of moving or rebuilding (or using additional facilities elsewhere).

    Surely the only proper answer is to spread once again the ‘quality’ education facilities throughout all parts of the country, hiring good teachers capable of doing once again what they used to do when grammar schools existed as a separate, well organised and highly respected element in the system? It’s absurd to put the onus of restoring national educational quality on the public schools, and it’s already questionable whether the escalation of competitive privilege (through ever increasing, expensive facilities offered to their private pupils) is the right path.

    • itdoesntaddup

      Since 86% of all A level passes at Westminster are A/A*, I don’t think they let many dunces through the door. Alternatively, A level standards have fallen a lot further than even I had thought.

      • JamesdelaMare

        Yes, they always did have quite a high entry requirement, but of course they have a limited site so they never could take the numbers Eton has, which occupies half the town. Nonetheless, it’s not the job of those places to replace the government in creating higher standards elsewhere. That’s what politicians and civil servants are highly paid to do, and why Gove, Osborne and the rest want jobs like that.

        • itdoesntaddup

          Westminster has 750 pupils, Eton 1300.

          • JamesdelaMare

            Yes, exactly. Up from 400 fifty years ago, but they can absorb more these days because many don’t board when in daily travelling distance in London and some are girls. The additional 200 won’t board. Maybe they can find the teaching facilities and space, but even so it’s a questionable policy to get involved with.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Many more of these ‘Twitter storms’ and ‘outrages’ with demands for instant apologies from anyone exercising freedom of expression which offends the politically correct or the burgeoning victim industry and they will need a dedicated police unit for it. A Twitter Watchdog And Transgressions agency perhaps? Should be right up some quangocrat nanny or ‘police’ empire building grandee’s street.

  • fantasy_island

    Fraser could you provide a link please to the source of the 25th position claim, a journalist in the Indi claims that we are located 6th.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/theres-no-point-in-comparing-our-school-holidays-to-other-nations-8580803.html

  • telemachus

    Free Schools are just that
    Free from the National Curriculum
    Can that be good when we are also about getting back to a more structured education including a true appreciation of British History?
    The main gripe however has to be the tinkering with the education system and advocating something that has not a hope of surviving after May 2015

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      If it keeps the filth of socialism away from impressionable youngsters, then yes, bring them on. Use them to employ teachers who care about teaching and excellence rather than some of the lazy scum who sit around waiting for pay day in the state system.

      • tele_machus

        I guess that is truly offensive to most hard working teachers

        • Nicholas chuzzlewit

          Good it was meant to be.

          • telemachus

            Like Gove
            You chastise when it is prudent to motivate

            • Russell

              The only people who motivate teachers are the Unions, they motivate them to strike.

              • telemachus

                You mean that they support the downtrodden undervalued teachers when Gove lambasts them one time too many

                • berosos_bubos

                  The ones on final salary pensions that only contribute a quater of the cost themselves?

        • Fergus Pickering

          What about lazy teachers? Or have you never met any?

  • GAM

    Obviously excellent news, but why all the coverage? This has been done before…

    http://excellencelondon.ac.uk/what-is-special-about-lae/who-are-laes-partners

  • David Lindsay

    The Old Labour definition of fairness is to close private schools.

    When? Harold Wilson used them as a parent while he was Prime Minister, and no one saw anything amiss.

    • telemachus

      It was New Labour
      I remember well parents meetings at my childrens schools in the early years of Blair to make contingencies to fight initial plans to withdraw charitable status from their schools

    • Dai Station

      That was in the days of the direct grant. Boys from poor backgrounds could get local authority scholarships to the school so there was a good social mix.

  • Smithersjones2013

    I hardly think its worth celebrating the school that produced both Clegg and Huhne. We really could do without more urban liberal elitists………

    • HookesLaw

      And John Locke Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke?
      Ben Johnson
      Dryden
      Charles Wesley
      etc

      I’ll give you Kim Philby…

      • Nicholas chuzzlewit

        He probably thinks they are Arsenal players.

  • Archimedes

    “They will go wherever demand is greatest – often sink estates.”

    The other element, of course, is that you’ll find entrepreneurs studying good models like those at private schools and just replicating them, which isn’t quite the same as free schools which will largely be set up because of some short-fall in the education system.

    It might not be such a bad idea, though, to just sit tight and allow the current reforms to continue, introducing profit-seeking schools later when the current schools are better able to respond to disruption.

    “If David Cameron doesn’t mess up the next election (a big if, I know)”

    I’m not so pessimistic about that. I can’t really think of any argument that the Conservatives are decisively losing, right now. They even seem to be on pretty good ground with the NHS.

    • telemachus

      A Dreamer
      What is the NHS good ground
      Every paper you open has a NHS horror story, if not on page one prominent inside
      Whoevers fault it is everyone “knows” the NHS is not safe in Tory hands

      • Russell

        Everyone knows the the patients are not safe when the NHS is in labours hands!

        • tele_machus

          Is that why we had the most massive expansion and grating of true accessibility with Gordon’s 2000-5 investments

          • Russell

            Obviously the thousands of avoidable deaths in the NHS hospitals have slipped your mind!

            • telemachus

              That can also be laid at the feet of those in charge during the 18 years of failed investment

              They just did not put enough in to staff the wards and this became ingrained

              With the money invested by Gordon Alan Johnson began to address this and Andy Burnham drove it forward
              Let us never again let the Tories try to deliver health on a shoestring

              • Russell

                Delusion personified!
                Pity the £billions labour put in went to private PFI investors and not to teach nurses to feed, water and clean patients eh!
                Burnham & Johnson should be in jail along with Blair & Brown and quite a few other labour MP’s and Lords.

                • telemachus

                  You can argue
                  however there is no doubt that the crumbling ruins handed by Major to the Blair Government to resurrect had to be replaced before whole swathes of the country had no health services at all

                • Russell

                  Ask the relatives of thousands in Stafford (and elsewhere) whether or not they preferred their hospital pre 1997 or during labour years?

                  Within ‘the crumbling ruins’ pre 1997 as you put it, nurses weren’t actually killing people due to lack of care, and undertakers had a lot less business.

          • berosos_bubos

            Gordon’s investments, ho ho , just like his gold bullion investments

      • HookesLaw

        Stafford was under Labour. More of your usual rubbish

      • Nicholas chuzzlewit

        Yes and there were 1,200 people who died unecessarily at mid-Staffs who were not safe in Labour’s hands. Where was Andy Burnham? Too busy being a sanctimonious, holier-than-thou socialist bore than to concern himself with such trivial matters as patient care. Please spare us the usual disingenuous nonsense about Hunt getting a grip. It had nothing to do with him. As for Westminster opening a Free School – Great. If nothing else, it will irritate Fiona Miller yet another sanctimonious socialist bore.

        • tele_machus

          Do you have an explanation about Hunt’s failure to get a grip?

          • Nicholas chuzzlewit

            Of Andy Burnham’s sanctimonious neck?

            • telemachus

              Andy is one of the triumvirate who will take us forward into the Twenties

              • Nicholas chuzzlewit

                Yes, the 1920s.

      • Archimedes

        “Whoevers fault it is everyone “knows” the NHS is not safe in Tory hands”

        Yes, I know that’s the idea — it just doesn’t seem to be cutting through, though, does it?

      • Fergus Pickering

        But the horror stories all happened when Labour was in power.

        • telemachus

          You mead we found out
          They had been going on for years

          • Fergus Pickering

            Ah Margaret Thatcher was to blame.

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