‘This idea that the state and independent sectors are in a death match does no one any favours’

11th February 2016 at 18:01
Bernard Trafford on Lord Lucas
In an open letter, a leading independent school head takes the publisher of the Good Schools Guide to task

Dear Lord Lucas

I’m afraid you and I have fallen out, although we’ve never met, and haven’t discussed the matter that has angered me: but then, it appears you didn’t discuss your opinions on the position of independent education with representatives of the sector before sharing them with the media.

You were under no obligation to do so: but I’d have hoped you were sufficiently media-savvy to realise that your comments would inevitably be presented beneath such headlines as “Private schools in crisis” in Saturday’s Times.

You’ve done both sectors a disservice. In characterising state schools in the past as rife with pot-smoking and indiscipline, you’re peddling as tired an old stereotype as the press adopts when illustrating independent schools with that constantly-recurring 1920s photo of Etonians.

All schools have improved

Though you credit them with enormous improvement, maintained school heads might feel patronised by the suggestion that they have only just grasped the idea that you can run a school to high standards in their sector. That’s neither new nor a blinding revelation.

As you concede, all schools have improved over the last few decades. I admit league tables and inspection have played their part: though that doesn’t excuse the concomitant bullying of schools and teachers by government over the past quarter-century.

Instead of rejoicing for all, you see state school improvement as a problem for independent schools which, you claim, “are on the wane”. By contrast, the Independent Schools Council reports rising numbers in the sector, this year even in the north.

Both sectors share best practice

Next you describe as a weakness “increasing homogeneity and conformity” in the way independent schools teach. I’d respond that both sectors have learnt to share best practice: is that dull conformity or the relentless pursuit of excellence?

You reckon independent schools (such as the one I run) will survive only by offering quirky things like polo teams: I think they thrive by being excellent in everything. That’s what parents rightly demand from both sectors.

You describe the private sector, curiously, as being both fragmented and conformist, but academy chains as a source of strength, allowing leaders of those school groups “real time and space to innovate rather than just having to firefight”. Do they feel that sense of space, I wonder, when Ofsted’s gunning for their school, or after the whole chain?

Media nonsense

Following your comments, I’ve read more media nonsense about the private sector than for a long time. Journalists researched no further afield than Barnet and Hampstead and barely reached beyond the few top selective state grammar schools: all a rather South-Eastern perspective.

Your Good Schools Guide seeks out schools’ individuality and writes nice quirky thumbnail sketches about them. Your reviewer’s write-up of my school, published last year, was amusing, perceptive and uncovered no tedious conformity, a judgment borne out by a recent (January) inspection report from the Independent Schools Inspectorate .

Both your recent comments and the consequent “crisis” reports describe a world that doesn’t exist for the vast majority of state or private schools. Independent schools are pragmatic and adaptable. During tough economic times they shrink: sometimes they merge or sadly close. When things recover, the sector’s still there, and strong.

We don't charge eye-watering fees

When I collaborate across the sectors to share experience, ideas and best practice, I work with professionals who certainly understand what it takes to do well (your phrase). I’m pretty sure my maintained sector colleagues don’t encounter many oligarchs or the super-rich on my patch.

Maybe it’s different in London: up in Newcastle upon Tyne, at any rate, we independents do real life. We don’t charge eye-watering annual fees, recognising that £12,000 is a significant sum. We raise and spend £700K each year on bursaries, because we don’t want to become the exclusive preserve even of the relatively rich.

The Good Schools Guide celebrates good schools even-handedly, doesn’t it? What a shame that, when the two sectors are working more closely together than ever, offering success to all children, you chose to create division by offering evidence that was spurious at best to those in the media who seize every opportunity to knock the independent sector.

All schools deserve better from you.



Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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