Proud of state students and their achievements

1st June 2012 at 01:00

Having read Michael Gove's recent Brighton College speech praising independent schools, I now know who to blame for my youthful obsession with Noel Edmonds: my neglectful parents. As a boy with exceptional looks for radio, I aspired to be Radio 1's next breakfast show DJ. Like a tormented and seething young Hamlet, I looked on enviously at my nemesis Noel, who then reigned supreme across the breakfast airwaves of Britain's "happy sound".

It was never to be. But Gove's speech has taught me that if my parents had sent me to the "right" school, then I would have shunned such foolhardy ambitions and aspired instead to become editor of a national broadsheet, say The Daily Telegraph or The Times. This, it seems, is the true test of whether a school is any good or not. "It is remarkable", Gove proclaimed, "how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated."

This isn't news. The Sutton Trust has reported that 70 per cent of judges, 68 per cent of barristers, 54 per cent of journalists and 51 per cent of medics were independently educated.

So tell us something we don't know. I sometimes wonder why our education leaders are so keen to clamber on to the polished stages of England's elite schools in order to sneer with such lofty derision at the rest of us. After all, I went to Walton Comprehensive School. My teaching practice was at various inner-city comprehensives in Leicester and I started my teaching career at the superb and brazenly named Garforth Comprehensive School in Leeds.

I am proud that since then I have never taught in a school that selects its students through ability tests or the income of their parents. I am proud that both of my children have attended the comprehensive school where I am privileged to be headteacher.

I'm not sure whether they - or the hundreds of other bright, optimistic young people I work with each day - have their hearts set on becoming editor of The Guardian, but I do know that we prepare them for college, university and future life by rooting them in values of respect and tolerance for people of all backgrounds, providing good teaching and a rich programme of extra-curricular sport and music. Why would anyone want to pay extra for that?

Success across the board

I'm delighted that eight of our students have been offered places at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge this autumn - something they have achieved absolutely on merit, with some extra coaching for the interviews, and with the relentless support of their teachers. But I'm just as proud of those students who will this summer embark on hairdressing or car mechanic courses. Their vocational qualifications have opened doors.

I'm especially delighted that the Oxbridge students sit each day side by side in tutor time and assemblies with those future hairdressers because - as a fan of the comprehensive ideal - I want to do all I can to overturn what I know about literacy: that if we aren't careful the word-rich get richer, while the word-poor get poorer. That's why I don't like social segregation, and feel reassured that many of the world's best-performing school systems seem to dislike it, too.

It is also why - without any chip on my shoulder, honest - it amazes me that people express surprise if children from aspirational and often affluent families at private schools come out doing better than those at neighbouring schools that don't have these critical advantages. As the coach of our school's debating team, I once spoke to a teacher at one of England's most impressive independent schools with a formidable reputation for debating success. "How come your teams always do so well?" I asked her. "Isn't it obvious?" she replied. "They're rich North London boys who since birth have spent every evening talking over dinner about what's in that day's Daily Telegraph. Why wouldn't they do well?"

State of mind

And that's why I'm proud to work in a comprehensive school, with other teachers who enjoy engaging with the full range of children from all backgrounds. I share their frustration at the way we are caricatured as low-standard lefties or enemies of change, but then I remember how lucky we are in our mission, with our ability to look ourselves in the eye each day and feel we may just be making a difference to the hopes and ideals of ordinary young people - to people like we were. And unlike our education secretary, I don't have any doubt that one day, one of our national newspapers will be edited by someone who was a state school student.

I just hope that whoever she is and whenever she does it, she doesn't feel the need to boast about the name or status of her old school as if were the calling card to an elitist club. Instead, I hope she'll do a brilliant job and quietly demonstrate just how lucky we are to have great students, teachers and leaders in the state sector who can shrug off the snobbish assumptions of people whose understanding of state schools is too often stereotypical, nostalgic and dismissive.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

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