Breach your defences and let the wellbeing flood in

7th March 2008 at 00:00
Three cheers for the Girls' Day School Trust, which last week advocated that the "Berlin Wall" between the independent and state sectors should be breached. Barbara Harrison, its chief executive, has argued that teachers should ply their trade across the sectors: "Having teachers work in both types of school would create understanding and break down barriers," she said.

A quiet revolution has happened in the past 10 years. Back in the late 1990s, a real stigma existed about inter-sector contact. State school teachers and local authority personnel rarely, if ever, set foot in an independent school. To do so, they thought, was somehow disloyal. On the other side, independent school teachers were apprehensive about visiting state schools, uncertain about what kind of welcome they would receive.

But that wall really is beginning to come down. The IndependentState School Partnership, founded in the late 1990s, has helped sponsor many collaborations between the sectors, although the funding has remained pitifully small. The Charity Commission has provided a clear impetus for independent schools to reach out to state schools. The mutual suspicion is evaporating. It is the practical problems that now constitute the biggest hurdle.

The time is ripe for a major new push. Why stop at teachers practising in both sectors? Why shouldn't pupils exchange? It seems extraordinary to me that expeditions from independent and, increasingly, state schools fly off to exotic places on other continents when they could be getting on a coach to participate in as diverse and far more fruitful exchanges with nearby schools from the other sector. Impossible to bring off? Not at all. All it needs is imagination. It would help too if the Government was to signal by rhetoric, and still more by cash, that it believes such interchanges would be valuable and enhancing for teachers and pupils alike.

Far more unites both sectors than divides them; we have all become a little too obsessed with the differences rather than the similarities. Let me give you one shared goal: helping our young people, and indeed the adults who work in our schools, to lead emotionally, physically and mentally healthy lives. Common pressures drive many children and adults in both sectors to seek release in alcohol and drugs. This week, the Government announced that extended drinking hours will remain. It remains coy about reclassifying marijuana as a serious drug. Depression and mental illness soars, yet we learnt last week that anti-depressants might be no more effective than placebos.

I was sent the following poem by the indomitable Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, whose son died through drugs, and who has written the recent bestseller Mum, Can You Lend Me Twenty Quid?

I am more powerful than the combined armies of the world.

I have destroyed more people than all the wars of the nation.

I have caused millions of accidents and wrecked more homes than all floods, tornadoes and hurricanes put together.

I am the world's slickest thief.

I steal billions of dollars each year.

I find my victims among the rich and poor alike, the young and the old, the strong and the weak.

I am relentless, insidious, and unpredictable.

I am everywhere; in the home, on the street, in the factory, in the office, on the sea and in the air.

I bring sickness, poverty and DEATH.

I give nothing and take all.

I am your worst enemy.


Schools in both sectors should teach wellbeing as a matter of priority. It will help children lead lives free of dependency. The education world and the media are still full of bigots who are not engaging with the wellbeing movement. All kinds of "Berlin Wall" have still to be broken down.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

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