Don't patronise state plebs like Eric and Ernie

27th June 2008 at 01:00
On the last day of school before study leave, Mick the deputy took up position at the front door
On the last day of school before study leave, Mick the deputy took up position at the front door. An East End boy, the years he spent as a night club bouncer came flooding back. Water pistols, flour bombs - nothing escapes his eagle eye. Yet even Mick blanched as Year 13 hove into view.

The girls had dressed as exiles from St Trinian's, all legs, pigtails and cleavage; the boys had done the same, except that the skirts were even shorter and the busts bustier. Mick could see his dream of a calm last day disappearing quicker than free coffee in the staffroom.

He needn't have worried. Year 13 were being choreographed by Eric and Ernie, leaders of the sixth-form council. The day climaxed in a final assembly, where they graciously allowed the head of sixth form to speak, before presenting awards and playing the professional-quality DVDs they had been making of the year group as they moved up through the school: productions, expeditions, fundraising.

These two have been real leaders. Eric came to us in Year 7 from a cathedral school. The offer he has to read music at Oxford (Ernie has a place to read philosophy, politics and economics) is a vindication of the trust placed in a state school by his family. So I agreed with Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, when he wrote in The Times recently that schemes simply broadening access to independent schools - assisted places, direct grant schools, bursaries - might be good for individuals, but are disastrous for state schools themselves. They deprive us of the motivated pupils, such as Eric and Ernie, and their motivated parents that schools need for leadership.

But another comment from Seldon has been gnawing away at me like a cockroach that's forgotten its Ritalin. He wrote that each sector has a lot to learn from the other: "Independent schools have much to learn about teaching and learning, as well as assessment, appraisal and staff development." Good lord! What else would you do in a school? Are standards really that low in the private sector? Apparently, "state schools in turn could learn more about pastoral care and extramural education". First, our school doesn't have a wall around it. Local businesses come to us, and our students go to them - all Year 9, for example, have local placements as part of their citizenship curriculum. Pastoral care? I hope he did not mean that old chestnut of a housemaster sitting in carpet slippers, filling his pipe while delivering manly advice.

Or perhaps he can advise us on what to do for the pupil who lives with an alcoholic mother and abusive brother, and whom we pick up each morning so we can spend the day trying to manage his anger?

We will work with any school - state or independent - to share ideas and make life better for kids. But I object to the idea that the private system as a whole has something to teach the oiks on the other side of the tracks. Context is all.

It's funny how all this is becoming flavour of the month just as there are dark mutterings about removing charitable status from private schools unless they let the plebs borrow the cricket square once a term. We want to keep our Erics and Ernies in state schools, so don't expect us to lift a finger to help save you from the Charity Commission's clutches. You see, the truth is, we'd rather you weren't there at all.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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