Eton partnerships will create opportunities in communities that need them, but they won’t level up education as a whole

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a school library, with books in focus and more blurred in the background

By Professor Chris Millward, Professor of Practice in Education Policy, School of Education

Early in 2020, a renowned public school asked me a difficult and unexpected question.  It was difficult because it pitched the interests of individuals against the communities in which they live.  It was unexpected because the school was one of eight from the independent sector sending more students to Oxford and Cambridge universities than 3,000 state schools.  As the universities’ access regulator at that time, it was my job to change that, indeed I was almost certainly being asked the question because we were beginning to succeed.

The question was whether it would be better to invest the school’s considerable and growing endowment in scholarships to recruit students from disadvantaged communities, or to invest in partnership with schools in the state sector.  If you speak to state school headteachers, they will say that their most capable students are an inspiration to their peers and to future pupils, so their loss to the private sector is a loss to the community.  On that basis, I argued that the school’s leaders should not only partner with the state sector, they should do so in the industrial and coastal towns where there are the lowest levels of school attainment and progression to higher education, and provide more than ‘crumbs off their table’

Two years later, as we emerge from a pandemic that has increased educational inequalities, this is now a centrepiece of the government’s education strategy for levelling up.  Building on the London Academy of Excellence, proposals will be invited for selective 6th form free schools in 55 education investment areas across the country.  The most high-profile bids will involve Eton College, which plans to open schools in Dudley, Middlesbrough and Oldham.  These towns are 3rd, 10th and 19th in the ranking of local authorities with the lowest proportions of people with level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualifications, and 71%, 70% and 60% of their postcodes are in neighbourhoods with low higher education participation.    

Many people working in state schools will be sceptical about the relevance of expertise from the independent sector, given the level of resource they receive for each secondary school pupil is one third of the average independent school fee and one tenth of the level at Eton.   They may also be concerned about the impact of new developments on neighbouring schools and colleges.  Eton is, though, partnering with Star Academies, which has a strong track record of running schools in deprived neighbourhoods, and developing curricula and admissions policies with advice from experts on educational inequality.  It is also engaging with local authority leaders, who are currently supportive, welcoming the investment in their communities and the opportunities it will create for young people. 

If this is to be sustained, the new schools will need to draw students from all parts of the community and work closely with other schools and colleges, so they spread their resources, enable coherent choices and pathways for learners, and avoid other routes becoming second class.  That will require more careful positioning than the government’s announcement, which said the schools would serve ‘talented children…to the highest standard this country can offer’, thereby diminishing all other children, schools and colleges, and modes of learning.

We need also to ask a different version of the question I was posed in 2020, which balanced the interests of individual students against those of their community.  It may be good for specific communities to attract investment from central government and our most famous school, but what are the consequences for our education system as a whole? 

Governments of all parties have sought parity of esteem between different educational routes, yet enhanced division and stratification by ducking qualifications reform in schools and colleges.  Universities have contributed to this through admissions processes that are more selective and stratified than in most other countries, and beyond the level necessary to identify the attributes to succeed on their courses.  This creates a race for academic qualifications, which advantages the families and schools with the greatest resources.  It also creates boundaries between knowledge and skills that have little relationship with the attributes needed for 21st century lives and careers.   

Our schools system is confused and complex, lacking local coherence and accountability due to the partially completed process of academisation and residual responsibilities left with local authorities.  The commitment to increase schools funding during the current spending review period no more than reverses the cuts made since 2010.  In the existing further education colleges and 6th form colleges that will be working alongside the new schools, funding levels were expected to be around 10% and 23% lower in real terms by 2024-25 than in 2010 even before the current cost of living pressures.

Diverting public investment towards selective 6th form free schools can be expected to reinforce these patterns.  If the government’s strategy is to benefit more than a minority of learners, it needs to address the causes of educational inequality beyond the education system, build bridges between learners, educational institutions and types of learning, and level up the resources we make available to them. 

Chris Millward is Professor of Practice in Education Policy at the University of Birmingham.  He was the Director for Fair Access and Participation for England’s higher education regulator from 2018-21.

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