Sacrificed to the cocktail party factor

25th October 1996 at 01:00
A headmaster believes he was ousted for championing the average child in an era of league tables. Nicholas Pyke reports. Alice and Peter Wilkes have run out of vases for the flowers that fill their sitting room, and the letters of support are stacking up. They were astonished to find how popular they are at Cheltenham College, where Peter is the headmaster. So, it seems, was the the school's governing council which last week chose to sack him - creating furore in the process.

It came as a huge blow to the Wilkeses who were due to spend another four years in Cheltenham. When the summer term ends, they will lose both their house and their way of life in a town dominated by its Victorian public schools.

It is also a blow to the parents who pay annual fees of Pounds 12,000 but have had no say in Mr Wilkes's future. Describing the sacking as "high-handed and undemocratic", they have already demanded his reinstatement.

Alice Wilkes says the sacking is a blow to education - liberal, civilising education, rather than a narrow search for academic success inspired by A-level league tables. It is league table mania, she believes, that has led to her husband's dismissal: Cheltenham College has slipped into division three of the Daily Telegraph's public school table, and the governing council, cannot stand the shame.

Peter Wilkes is contractually unable to put his side of the story. His wife feels no such constraint.

Cheltenham, she said, has refused to sacrifice its average children on the altar of competition. No child has been excluded or told to take his A-levels privately. The sixth form has been open to any child capable of three A-levels, whether at E or A-grade. And, she believes, for this recalcitrance, her husband has been dismissed.

She accused the 24-man council of seeking academic and financial success at any cost. League tables, she wrote, are undermining the feelings of self-worth of too many young people: "It is very dangerous and utterly wrong for boys and girls to feel 'failures' at such an early stage in their lives."

Public schools like Cheltenham are are in the grip of market forces. The numbers game is crucial - and boarding is in decline. The conflict between a traditional view of education and the new philosophy of publicity could hardly be presented more clearly.

Independent school league tables, launched in 1994 by the Daily Telegraph, proved another tool for goading "under-performers". It was from that point, says Alice Wilkes, that the council members started to fret about the A-level scores. And when this year the results fell slightly (just under 50 per cent of the results were A and B grades) the council decided to act.

She said: "There's a difference between the needs of young people and the aspirations of governors who see good results as reflected glory. I'm sure it's vanity on their part. It's the embarrassment at a cocktail party or whatever of having to confess that your team hasn't done as well as you expected."

It is not, she says, as if the school does badly. This year's A-level results were the third best in its history. The GCSE results were the best ever, 46 per cent of them A or A*. Twenty pupils received offers from Oxford or Cambridge, 10 of the brightest A-level students achieved a straight 37 A-grades between them. "Real excellence is not hard to find," said inspectors from the Headmasters' Conference.

"What's disguised by the league tables is that this school does extremely well by its scholars," Mrs Wilkes said. "Winchester might have been able to do a bit better, but not very much better. Give us a scholar and the school really hits the button." This is on top of what she describes as outstanding music, drama, art and sport and excellent pastoral care. "Education must be related to enabling each child to reach his full potential.

"What saddened us most is that we have just completed a wonderful half-term. There is a sense of pride and happiness in the institution in a way I haven't really felt here before to quite the same extent."

The council's secretary, Air Commodore David Atherton, was unable to comment this week. But Mrs Wilkes says the members have a different view of the school ethos.

"One of them suggested that all those people who get Cs at A-level should be having remedial help. It was an extraordinary thing."

To bridge the gap with the council, Mr Wilkes had entered the world of management talk, starting a self-funded MBA. He has not had the heart to pursue it further.

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