How the other half teach

11th July 2014 at 01:00

In Scotland, 5 per cent of children attend private schools. It's a topic that stimulates intense debate and prompts some state school teachers to engage in a peculiar form of inverted snobbery.

But, if I'm honest, there have been times in my own career when I was guilty of the same stereotyping. I saw private school teachers as posh, arrogant and selfish. They worked with children who were "easy" to teach and who would succeed regardless of the quality of their education. I believed it was a system far removed from the real world.

As such, it was easy to take the moral high ground and denigrate any achievements claimed by my counterparts in private education.

My comfortable bubble was punctured when I shared a platform with Dr Judith McClure, headteacher of St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh at the time. We were addressing the education committee of what was then the Scottish Executive on the subject of school leadership. Speaking in a cut-glass accent, Dr McClure said things that chimed completely with my own views. But surely this was just rhetoric?

I jumped at the chance to visit her and see these falsehoods in action. But as I toured her school I realised that we were no different. I was impressed by the way she spoke to children as equals and with complete regard and genuine interest, by her compassion for staff, by her appreciation of parents' ambitions and by her dedication to a "rounded" education. But I was also impressed by the outstanding educational practice I witnessed in her school.

Imagine that I said to a group of state school leaders that I was going to send them to a private school in Scotland to learn about aspects of leadership. What would their response be? Well, they would probably be very uncomfortable with the idea. And the reasons behind this discomfort tell us something about the fragility of our confidence in our own practice.

First, they might have a problem with private schooling on principle. Second, they might believe, as I did, that they had nothing to learn from their peers in the private sector. Third, they might fear that colleagues, parents or even local politicians would object to fraternisation with the private sector.

Yet we have a professional obligation to learn about outstanding leadership, and sometimes this can exist in unexpected and potentially uncomfortable places.

We are too small a country to ignore opportunities to learn from one other, wherever those examples reside. Educational leaders must endeavour to break down barriers between all forms of provision, regardless of sector, geography or creed. Failing to do so does a disservice to the people we are ultimately accountable to: our pupils.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at Drummond International, and honorary professor of leadership at Queen Margaret University

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