I recently swapped the modernist new-build monolith of a large community comprehensive school for the ivy-decked quadrangles of an ancient boarding school. In doing so, I have experienced the stereotypes and prejudices on either side of the great educational divide.
The staffroom banter at my previous school was about the easy life I would be enjoying: the biddable students, the small classes, the long holidays, the lack of management interference and the resources that would be thrown at me. And although there is a lot more insight into the state system in the private sector (after all, many private-sector teachers qualified in the state sector), there is a perception of the state sector as a grim place of under-resourced teachers fighting a losing battle against unruly students and wave after wave of government initiatives.
My experience of the state sector is primarily of talented and committed teachers devoting energy and creativity to drawing the best possible results from their students. I didn't go to a private school, few of my friends did, and I had never worked in one. The whole experience for me has been a "shock of the new". So how true were my former colleagues' perceptions?
It's a boarding school, so school life happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with weekend and evening commitments very much part of life during term. Furthermore, academic teaching is only part of the job. Games are a defining part of the private school ethos: the students are on a games field four afternoons a week and the job description includes teaching sport as well as your academic subject. There is no separate PE department and sport is a much bigger part of students' - and teachers' - lives at school.
While teaching methodologies may be slightly less progressive at my new school, perhaps the biggest difference from a teaching and learning perspective is the attitude of the students. As one student told me in my first week: "It's just not cool to do badly." Students are, in general, willing to take risks in front of their peers, teachers and the public; willing to perform, present, speak, debate and challenge ideas. They have more academic, social and self-confidence, which can make them more challenging in lessons than my previous students. This may be a result of their more privileged backgrounds. But it is also true that the school sets out to nurture and encourage this in a way that my comprehensive school simply didn't.
One way it does this is through the house system. The house is where students relax, eat and study together and, for the boarders, where they live. It provides the primary sense of identity for students, creating a close-knit cross-year-group community within the wider school. Although a team of staff is in charge, to a large extent students regulate themselves. There is a high degree of student leadership across the school, whether it be running societies or as prefects. Competition is an entrenched aspect of the school's culture, fostered by competitions between the houses in sport, debating and creative arts. Students in the house work together across all year groups, with senior students organising junior ones. Teachers have no role other than to facilitate and judge or umpire contests.
As Roy Hattersley wrote in The Guardian after visiting a well-known private school in 2007: "A selective intake, admirable facilities, concerned parents and highly qualified staff teaching small classes ought to produce excellent results." Yet there's more to it than this: the institutional structure of the school is finely adapted to its niche in the educational ecosystem. It has evolved over hundreds of years to extract the maximum academic potential from its particular cohort of students while also developing their sporting, creative, social and leadership capabilities. Expectations are enormously high. There are no target grades as the majority of students - justifiably or not - expect an A grade. My experience in the state sector was that the C grade is something of an educational black hole, drawing in D-grade and A-B students alike. It is the A grade that seems to exert a gravitational pull in my new school.
My conclusion? You could hardly pick two more different schools so, unsurprisingly, teaching in my new school feels like a completely different job. I suspect that many high-achieving state schools and private schools might not feel so different. For now, it's refreshing to experience such a contrasting environment, to teach sport as well as my academic specialism, and to spend less time on paperwork and behaviour management and more on stretching and supporting students. If and when I return to the state sector, I hope I will be enriched by the experience.
Photo credit: Corbis