What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?

This evening I’ve read about the speech Michael Wilshaw gave to independent heads and seen it referred to as fabulous (although not had this verdict elaborated on) and alternated between yawning through a Man Utd game and watching how Tarquin has been getting on at Harrow in the Sky documentary – you know, the one with the god awful jump cutting and music.

Watching it and reflecting on my own experiences I’m not entirely sure what it is that Wilshaw has it quite right about partnerships with independent schools. How would we translate beaks and Founders Day into a family who because of shift work or where kids are young carers haven’t sat and eaten a meal together for weeks or maybe months on end? How do we use the expertise of schools with ‘families’ across the world who offer work experience in offices in Beijing or Bangkok to aid students who have spent two weeks wiping tables in cafes in town or feeding wildfowl at a petting zoo having walked miles to get there?

I’m not intending to deride or even compare the two worlds but to a huge degree they are worlds apart. I wrote yesterday of how aspiration and high expectations are an issue for us in terms of student performance and here are kids with it in spades. It’s where we get this idea of public school arrogance – but is it a surprise when everyone around you is telling you just how great you can be and how well you can do?

My own experience came as a scholarship boy (Yep I’m not only SMT but also one of those arrogant public school boys -and you thought yesterday’s blog contained a confession!) in a very successful independent school. So successful that the chap you see welcoming all of the old Harrovians’ last gig was as head honcho there. Aside from a few issues in the first year where I was a Norfolk boy with a Norfolk accent quite clearly told “ We don’t talk like that here Goffin” by some of the less welcoming lads who seemed to question my credentials for being there I had a fantastic time. I think the support of my parents which helped me sustain my academic success – I had to or I’d be out – gave me some credibility but the school was a brilliant environment to develop as a rounded individual and I had some fantastic teachers and superb friends without who I wouldn’t be who I am now. Blame them!

So if it was all so rosy what’s the beef Goffin? Well despite my own experience being positive and the elitist accusations thrown at public schools not being something I really saw while I was there what I’ve seen on returning for dinners in the school refectory has been a different picture. At it’s simplest it’s been things like feeling I should have a more significant answer than teacher when asked what I do (In a school dinner hall of all places), or being made to look idiotic when I didn’t know the rules for the drinking games, or not recognising which Cambridge college the grace was from. 

Worse than that though was a speech by the Second Master where he went through the opening questions from a Leisure and Tourism paper laughing at the questions, the schools that would be teaching these courses and the ridiculous students who would be taking them and the silly lives they must lead. I’m perhaps being a little creative with the last point but that’s how I took it as a teacher that works with these kids and has always seen the huge impact that vocational education can have.

It was a cheap shot and it was playing to the gallery. A gallery of old boys who, rather like we saw Jim Hawkins do tonight, might well offer placements, internships or sponsorships to students or the school so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was insulted. Insulted that a school I believed in and one that I felt meant something to me was becoming exactly the sort of stereotype that I always had thrown at me when people found out where I was educated. Insulted that someone who should know damn well that all exam papers start off with simple questions to settle students’ nerves was being willfully ignorant of this to get a laugh and ingratiate himself to others who may have had excuses for such ignorance. But most insulted of all that someone who had apparently chosen to follow a career in education where his sole aim should be helping students to succeed was ridiculing a form of education for no reason other than it wasn’t the one he was working in. I should add here that a number of the staff I admired most and that were ones who are the reason why I do what I do expressed just as much dislike for these comments as I did albeit expressing such thoughts in politer terms than I used. You can, it would appear, take the boy out of Yarmouth…

But insulted as I was I maybe, like I say, I shouldn’t have been surprised. And not just because all public schools are full of toffs and that’s the way it is (remember I’m a product of one) but because it was just as I said – a different educational world and a different form of school.

And this is why much as I hear Wilshaw’s accusation of preferring to educate “those whose parents have deep pockets” and think back to that evening I think his standpoint that the help goes in one direction is misguided. It’s not simple enough to say that because the best results come from the independent sector that the education or school leadership in this sector is the best. Neither is it simple enough to write off what is achieved in public schools by saying they have selective entry so are merely an example of what goes in must come out. Admittedly I’m not sure value added is a major feature of their self evaluation and I’ve covered motivation and parental support and interest already, but I remember talking to the head of my old school (this one hasn’t been on telly lately as far as I know) a little while into my career and discussing that they don’t have to worry about ‘C’ or above but they certainly do have to ensure A and A* as a measure.

So how can we work together? Well for starters let’s not make it a power based relationship with one going cap in hand for donations from the other. Let’s get away from it being a wealth or a resourcing issue.Let’s get away from the notion that the state system is automatically seen as deficient and let’s get back to basics.

Let’s level the playing field and talk about good school leadership and how we make this work in whatever context we are in without belittling that context, let’s talk about good relationships and good teaching and learning whether we are teaching Latin or Health and Social Care and let’s let teachers talk to teachers about how we can do the best for our kids whether they have estate managers or live in a semi on an estate – didn’t do me any harm.




Lots of Love



3 thoughts on “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?

  1. Thanks for writing this, Colin – for your honesty and your insights.

    I had so many thoughts as I read it, but will just share a few here!

    I was educated in a state comprehensive and taught in four state schools before becoming a deputy head in an independent school. Five years later I moved to be the head of another independent school.

    I had no experience at all of the independent sector prior to my deputy headship. I didn’t explicitly want to change sectors but I wanted to be a deputy head. I had an interview in a state school one week -which I thought I was going to get, if I’m honest (I felt that I was ready and that it was the right sort of school for me) – and I didn’t. The following week I had an interview in an independent school which I didn’t think I stood a chance of getting (I really knew nothing about the sector and didn’t think I fitted the profile) – and I did.

    But once I moved into the sector I realised this was the sort of school I wanted to lead one day. After 15 years in state schools I appreciated the freedom and autonomy independent schools had – not suffering initiative overload and having to jump through the latest government hoops. We could make decisions which worked for the pupils in our context. We didn’t have to be obsessed with the C/D borderline, or with league tables – we just focussed on helping each individual to achieve the best they could, in the classroom and out of it. I found the independent school inspection system much more positive and supportive than Ofsted, for example the team inspectors are serving heads/senior leaders and they understand the reality of leading such schools. I trained as an inspector and did an inspection each year I was a deputy/head. It was a privilege, and I always brought good ideas back to my own school in addition to being able to help another school acknowledge its successes and focus its thinking about areas for future development. The girls (this was a girls’ school – another story but I really enjoyed focussing on girls’ needs) were generally well-behaved and they wanted to learn. It meant that I could concentrate on teaching and learning and not class management. That was hugely enjoyable and rewarding.

    But reading your post, and reading about Michael Wilshaw’s address this week, I also wanted to point out the following:
    Not all parents who send their children to independent schools (and I don’t find the term ‘public school’ very helpful – neither of the independent schools I worked in ever used this term) have ‘deep pockets’. There are many pupils who are only there because of the bursary support the school is able to give them. Many are there because grandparents can help with fees. Many parents make significant sacrifices to meet the financial commitment.
    Not all pupils in independent schools are high academic achievers – the school where I was the head was only narrowly selective. We had a fair number of pupils who wouldn’t pass the 11+ for the nearby grammar schools. Many such schools aren’t selective at all and some have fantastic special needs provision.
    Harrow (and Eton and Wellington) are fantastic schools, I think, but they aren’t at all representative of the sector.
    There is some brilliant teaching, outstanding extra-curricular provision, leadership development opportunities and excellent pastoral care in independent schools, as there are in state schools of course, and this is where we need to be working together/learning from each other/working in partnership. This is what we have in common – this is what binds us. And partnership can only really work if it’s of mutual benefit – both partners have something to contribute and something to learn.

    This reply is in danger of becoming longer than the original blog, so I must stop! Hope you find it interesting to read my thoughts and experiences – as I found it interesting to read yours. Thanks again.

  2. Hi Jill,
    Thanks for this – for your thoughts and for the pleasant surprise that my ramblings are worth reading and responding to.
    I’m sorry if I appeared to adopt a blanket approach and certainly wasn’t intending to suggest all are the same. I know exactly what you mean about deep pockets not being the case for all. Without wishing to get the violins out (!) as the son of a builder and a casualty nurse my parents made massive sacrifices for me to be able to attend but without the scholarship I was awarded it would have been nigh on impossible. My ears pricking up at the comment was more to do with the fellow Old Boys in the hall that night who seemed so far removed from the school I knew as a boy, “blazer and tie and a big bright healthy smile,” and this upset me in a way which was a real sideswipe. While we’re bearing souls I felt that it was somehwere I belonged and in some way that was being taken away from me.
    There were, and still are,fantastic teachers there and my appreciation for school, the role of the professional in education and my love of learning was firmly established in those cloisters even if the memory may have been in danger of turning sour on returning. A lot of my friends stay away.
    I would absolutely agree with your penultimate paragraph about how all teachers should want to contribute to a relationship that is mutaully beneficial and helps us do the best we can for our students – this is what binds us – and that’s really what I was trying to say. I think the work that went on in my school as a student and in the schools I have seen and admired as a teacher happens because these are great schools with great staff and this is practice that we should be looking for and sharing. The sector is irrelevant.

    And because we all I know I love a song …

    • Thanks Colin – and don’t worry, the ‘deep pockets’ ref was really about MW suggesting all independent schools have the resources (financial and human) to sponsor academies. My feeling is that he doesn’t really know much about the sector, and that he’s fallen into the trap (and he isn’t alone at the bottom of it!) of thinking all independent schools are like the wealthiest/most privileged.

      Will follow you and hope perhaps to meet you at some point and have a conversation!

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