Chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw delivered a withering attack on private schools - telling them they had to offer neighbouring state schools more than just “crumbs off your table”.
The head of education standards watchdog Ofsted told a conference of private school heads: “A few of your colleagues exhibit antediluvian views - some of them recoil from involvement in environments that can seem alien and daunting.”
In his speech to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference - which represents 250 of the country’s leading private schools, he said the country faced a “Lord Kitchener moment” where private school heads had to offer help to the nation’s state schools and dispel the perception they “do not care about the educational world beyond their cloisters and quads.
“Your country needs you, the state sector needs you,” he added.
Less than three per cent of private schools sponsored state-funded academies and five per cent loaned teaching staff to state schools, according to the Independent Schools Council - which represents the majority of private schools.
“That is commendable,” he said, “but for the vast majority of independent schools, the commitment and resource is far less - a bit of coaching for A-level students the occasional loan of a playing field...
“I’m sorry to say but the ISC’s list of activities is hardly evidence of a comprehensive commitment to partnership with state schools. It’s thin stuff. These are crumbs off your tables, leading to more famine than feast ... It’s hard not to conclude that too many in the independent sector are far more concerned with issues within their own walls than beyond them.”
Schools like Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse Westminster and Westminster were established with the express purpose of providing an education for the poor, he argued, adding: “I am calling on you all to renew and deepen that commitment.”
Many, though, were spending time and money on building “glittering new campuses” overseas and it was time to “think less globally and more locally - less Dubai and more Derby”.
He told the conference that inner city heads “haven’t got the time to worry whether their children are climbing trees proficiently” because gaining qualifications was the one route out of poverty for their pupils.
“They would find it deeply concerning, almost insulting, to believe that some in this room felt they don’t worry sufficiently about a balanced education for their students,” he added.
“They would feel particularly insulted if this criticism was coming from some educationalists who have the luxury of teaching children from aspirant and often well-heeled homes - homes that would make damn sure that their children passed their exams, even though the school afforded them the timer to climb trees and gaze upon the beauties of life.
“Indeed, how many inner city comprehensives have trees?”
Sir Michael said sponsoring academies was essential because private school heads had the expertise to be autonomous and run their own schools - a skill they needed to pass on to academy heads.
His comments provoked anger from independent school heads in the hall. Martin Reader, headmaster of Wellington School, Somerset, told Sir Michael state schools had rejected his offer of help because they were “politically opposed” to the private sector.
Adam Pettitt, head of Highgate School, accused Sir Michael of giving incorrect information. Sir Michael had said Highgate had formed partnerships with 21 local state schools offering preparation for Oxford and Cambridge interviews and summer schools - but this stopped short of formal sponsorship.
Mr Pettitt said his school was sponsoring three academies, adding: “I’m sick to death of the wrong facts,”
Matthew Burgess, general secretary of the ISC, said Sir Michael had shown a “lack of understanding at just how much work independent schools are already doing in collaboration with their state sector colleagues”.
“As a sector, we can be proud of the enormous amount of time and energy devoted by independent school teachers and leaders in working for the benefit of all children,” he added, “This manifests itself in many creative and innovative ways, including but not limited to academy and free school sponsorship.
“Rather than focus on one prescriptive form of support clearly favoured by HM Chief Inspector, our schools use their independence to deliver tailored programmes in local partnerships.”