'Private schools are a family – and staff have a voice'

Labour wants to abolish private schools, but what about the support staff? Who will look after them, asks Chris Wheeler

Chris Wheeler

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Ill-informed and increasingly hysterical attacks on independent schools often present them as secretive and somehow suspect enclaves closed to the outside world of "Everyone Else". This is so far from the truth that I decided last month to put out a series of videos on Twitter under the hashtag #VoicesWeDontOftenHear. Those voices belong to the people working in the irreplaceable support teams in our schools, and whose work lies behind our supposedly locked doors. 
I had no idea, however, how strong and clear these voices would prove to be. 
The notion was to record a brief snippet from those in the school community not often heard outside of the school gates: domestic, catering or maintenance staff, teaching assistants and others. There was no preparation; once a volunteer has agreed to participate, they are just asked who they are and what they think about the school. A number of other heads have taken up my challenge and made their own pieces. The footage shows that there are common themes across the country: schools – of any flavour – are communities, families and friendships before they are anything else. The most common response to the question is to describe the school as a family.

The threat to private schools: what about the staff?

Some of these support staff – many of whom have been at the school for decades – are the very people who political parties should be focusing on helping. To them, it’s bonkers to obsess about harming our schools when they see the good they do for children of all kinds

And they certainly want a voice. While there is much debate about the potential damage to families and teachers if these communities are attacked by punitive taxation or destroyed outright, few so far have chosen to consider the impact on our workforce.

Of course, it’s not enough to only foster a wonderful, kind community within our own schools – though heaven knows that’s hard enough. There is an important discussion to be had about what we do now to help improve education for everyone and what role independent schools could and should play in supporting the development of an outstanding education system. 

The more we pay attention to people rather than concepts, the more appalling it seems to me to go into an election worried that it might contain commitments from Labour to damage independent schools so badly that many would close, ripping thousands of hard-working employees out of the communities that they love and thrusting them back into an oversupplied job market.
So, to foster a better understanding of the true nature of our schools, warts and all, let’s celebrate the independent spirit, the warmth and the focus on individuals that the choir of "voices" know and love. They sit at the heart of our communities and they deserve a voice.

Chris Wheeler is headteacher at Monkton Combe School and vice-chair of the HMC. He is on Twitter at @MonktonHead

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