The dilemma of a left-leaning private school teacher

As someone who benefited from a private school bursary, I find it difficult to support the Labour Party, says Sam Burns

Private schools can play a big role in social mobility, writes Sam Burns

It’s a dilemma faced by many of my left-leaning school friends. Like me, they experienced a life-changing education at Christ’s Hospital – working class kids who benefitted from a bursary to an independent school. We’ve stayed close, following one another’s career progress as lawyers, accountants, medics, teachers and entrepreneurs – all of us mindful that our lives may have been very different had Christ’s Hospital not played such an important role. 

But these are testing times. Messages between us on our WhatsApp group are now peppered with question marks over Labour’s proposals to dismantle independent schools. On paper we fall under the banner of "privileged professionals": educated at independent schools and Russell Group universities (in my case, the first member of my family to gain a degree) before embarking on a career in the professions. But dig deeper and it’s not so straightforward. 

My case is similar to that of many bursary children: the choice of secondary school faced by my parents in the 1990s made for unnerving reading. The local comprehensive I should have attended was struggling – badly.

Ironically, private education was suggested to us by the head of my state primary school. At just 25 years old, Helen Ridding had been brought in to turn around what was then considered to be one of the worst primary schools in the country. It was a last-ditch decision by the local authority to save the school from closure. Jump forward a few years and Helen, who never lost faith in her pupils’ potential, had taken the school from "failing" to "outstanding" and received Tony Blair’s Teacher of the Year Award in 1999 at the Pride of Britain Awards ceremony, later becoming an Ofsted inspector and a leading educational adviser.

Private schools and social mobility

Grammar school, which had been my mum’s escape route from her own bleak prospects, was not an option and without the financial means to pay for an independent school education my parents were looking for an alternative secondary school option. Like all good teachers, Helen wanted the best for her pupils and suggested applying for an assisted place to Christ’s Hospital. And so a whole new world of opportunities arose: alongside academic excellence were the soft skills, pastoral care – and, importantly for me, sport

The privilege of such an education was not lost on any of us from Christ’s Hospital. "The Charge", read to all pupils before they leave, is a pledge we make never to forget the benefits of such an education and to do all we can to enable others to enjoy the same advantage. We take this responsibility seriously. I chair the Christ’s Hospital Hugh and Vera Olsen Bursary Fund, which provides financial help over the period of a degree course. As its first recipient, I have experienced the huge benefit this gives to someone without the "bank of mum and dad" to fall back upon.  

And career-wise, I now teach at another independent school with a high proportion of bursaries - Latymer Upper in Hammersmith. We’ve just celebrated our annual Founder’s Day – a great excuse, if one were needed, to celebrate Edward Latymer’s act of philanthropy, educating "poore boyes" from Hammersmith. Nearly 400 years on, we continue to honour his ethos with the aim of offering means-tested bursaries to one in four of our pupils by 2024. It’s no coincidence that both Latymer Upper School and Christ’s Hospital were finalists at this year’s UK Social Mobility Awards for encouraging social mobility through their bursary and outreach programmes.

The discourse on education is now so polarised that many of my classmates are in the position of having to choose between supporting their political party and an educational institution that also has social mobility at its heart. Of course, it’s impossible to read the future, but I can vouch for the past and an education that significantly improved my life chances. 

Sam Burns teaches biology and coaches rugby and netball at Latymer Upper School in West London 

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