'We don’t have a river for rowing, or an equestrian arena. But independent schools do.'

23rd June 2014 at 13:05

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School in Suffolk, writes:

I’m not sure quite what kind of legacy Sir Michael Wilshaw hopes to bequeath a grateful nation, but if he’s not careful it will be the memory of the pub bore who left locals wishing that the village pub had been closed down after all.

He is at risk, I fear, of turning into the Ancient Mariner of the education circuit, who with a glittering eye stops any passing news crew to rant about how much better things were in his heyday or, most recently, in private schools.

Naturally, I recognise that the title “chief inspector of schools” probably leads incumbents to feel their sense of national importance. They feel that they have to pontificate. JK Rowling highlighted what this trait did to the smirking fictional headmistress Dolores Umbridge once she became “senior undersecretary to the minister of magic”. Her pomposity was palpable and sickening.

Back here in the real world, if I were advising Sir Michael, I’d urge perhaps a modicum of nuance.

His recent comments on competitive sport in the state sector were especially irksome to those of us whose careers are dedicated to the comprehensive ideal and who see our beliefs and values too frequently rubbished in comments that are generalised, unhelpful and woefully unsubtle.

First there was the Ofsted report itself – ‘Going the extra mile’ (get it?) – a cliché-ridden survey based perhaps not on the largest-ever survey of England’s 24,000 schools. I’m no statistician, merely a humble English graduate. But I do wonder why a report into the state of school sport can rest so authoritatively upon visits to – er, wait for it – 10 independent schools and 35 state schools.

Why aren’t we simply laughing at the lamentable methodology? Where are the experts to put the boot into this unrepresentative and damaging nonsense?

Then there is the woeful oversimplification. Most top athletes in any sporting discipline won’t be working at that level directly because of their school. It will have been a great teacher who spotted their talent and put them in touch with the local club, the specialist coach. It’s the school-to-club links that matter so much here.

That’s precisely what the School Sports Partnerships, overseen by the Youth Sport Trust, were aiming to do – deliberately bringing specialist coaches into state schools to help identify future talent.

And it was one of the first things that Michael Gove axed in his sneering and gleeful “bonfire of the quangos”. Sir Michael didn’t mention that.

Then there’s the facilities issue. As it happens, at our school we don’t have a river for rowing, or an equestrian arena, or squash courts. We can’t offer fully-funded rugby or athletics scholarships in order to head-hunt the best future sports stars to our school.

The independents, of course, do that – even though their academic results would often leave much to be desired if they were put under the same scrutiny as the state sector’s.

But give us the resources, Sir Michael, and you will see that our ambition is as good or better than these mythical independent superheads you want us to aspire to. Naively, we assumed that, as a former state school headteacher, you knew that.

And there’s a final point on this unseemly spat over competitive sport.

Our own proud comprehensive state school determinedly offers what most parents would aspire to for their children – success in the classroom enhanced by an exceptional programme of music, sport, debating, art, Duke of Edinburgh Awards and much else. We know that lots of fellow state schools that do the same.

We want those parents who are flirting with the independent sector to realise we can offer so much more than the local private school – plus a genuine preparation for a real world of mixed backgrounds rather than a narrow and socially inclusive one.

We think that in this country we need more inclusiveness, not less.

But with his broad-brush comments, caricaturing schools like mine which are so committed to competition in all areas, Sir Michael may now make it harder for us to make our case.

As the once proud head of a state school, he risks – through a snide and unseemly attack on state schools – nudging those uncertain parents to default into choosing the local independent school for their children’s education.

Of course, I’m not saying that all or maybe any state schools are yet as good as they could be. We can and will all do better. It’s the moral imperative that drives us.

But I am saying that I would hate my own legacy to be as someone who sniped gratuitously from the sidelines, basking in the brief sunshine of media attention, and who, in the process, fatally undermined the many state schools which believe so passionately that great education, including competitive sport, is for all and not for a divisive few.


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