How to cross the great divide

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Public or private? Helen Werner has worked both sides of the fence

So you think you'd like to work in a private school? Well, it's tempting, of course: all those playing fields, libraries crammed with books, and state-of-the-art technology. To say nothing of delightful, well-behaved children with devoted parents. Even the adverts are classy - display boxes with crests and mottos, requests for "special people" and promises of salaries above national scales.

Well, as someone who has seen life from both sides of the stateprivate divide, I can help you through the hype.

Prep schools are big on tradition. If it is customary for the head boy's mother to give the obstacle race prize on sports day, woe betide any new teacher who tries to do it. Nobody will tell you this. Prep schools take enormous pride in a lack of communication. They operate on the premise that as things have run perfectly well since Nelson's day, why change anything now? Everyone should realise that exams start on the second Monday in February and only seniors are allowed to speak on the stairs.

We know there is hell to pay in any staffroom for using the wrong coffee mug. At Prim's Prep, you can annoy some old campaigner by simply entering the room. But if you have an aversion to meetings and like to be left alone, a prep school is for you. My first mentor showed me to an icy room, sent me large classes and let me get on with it. I had a whale of a time.

Prep schools also have values, unlike St Smoothy's, the private school down the road where they wear sweatshirts and go home at 4pm, Prim Prep never send a child home until he is too exhausted to trouble his busy parents.

A Prim pupil leaves school ready to strike out in a hostile and competitive world. He has a firm handshake and can look a man in the eye. Little Sebastian knows the importance of polish and a clean handkerchief. These talents often secure the most unlikely children a place at a minor public school.

Poor St Smoothy's pupils burst into the world hot on the trail of grammar school places, only to find that children from the state school Jobless Junior gain a surprising number. What's more, Jobless Junior's classrooms are brighter, betterequipped and more spacious than many of its independent counterparts. Jobless Junior has done well out of the LEA - just as well, since the Christmas fete brought in pound;37.66.

If orderly classrooms are your priority, I recommend Jobless Junior. The school will have established a system of routines. Jobless Junior likes uniformity. Individual freedom might mean Jason bringing his Rottweilers in to sort out Kevin.

At Prim's Prep, such procedures are unnecessary because children can be trusted. A teacher rarely sees a fight or hears an obscenity. His breaktime patrol will not, of course, take in the boys' toilets, where Damien is screaming with his head down the pan.

St Snooty's claims to combine the best of traditional education with the forward looking ethos of a technologically aware school. Pupils are forever on outings, producing CDs, performing at the Royal Festival hall and winning national debating competitions.

Their motto, "Succeed at all costs," prepares them for life in business and estate agency. In a recent rugby match they beat Prig's 98-0. Prig's clapped politely, knowing that winning isn't half so important as playing the game.

Which brings us to hours and pay. Don't believe those enhanced salaries. An extra pound;7 a month does not make up for working until 8pm and weekend duties. St Snooty's seems to offer the best deal - 4pm home time and no weekends. Unless, of course, you are organising a national debate, music festival, drama competition, football tournament, swimming gala... And then there's all that homework to mark.

Good old Jobless Junior. They manage to hold their own in the league tables despite 40 per cent of pupils being on free school meals and a day that ends at 2.30pm. Unless, of course, you have a curriculum meeting, a pastoral meeting, a team meeting, or a case conference for a seven year-old at risk. And you may have to drive round the streets protecting Kevin from Jason and the Rottweilers. Friday brings the thrill of the jobs section and a sense of optimism. Hang on to it - wherever you end up children are really the same. And they, after all, are what the job is about.

Helen Werner, Jason, Kevin and Rottweiler are pseudonyms

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