The Government wants state and independent schools to draw closer together - and there is much they can learn from each other, says Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College
Not surprisingly, Stephen Byers' call for greater partnership between the state and independent-school sectors prompted an outpouring of sentiment late last year. There are those who believe that the independent sector's very existence is divisive, and that social cohesion (Labour's aim?) will only be achieved with its demise. And then there are the parents who are paying twice - school fees and through taxation - and would resent any dilution of the educational experience at the independent school they have selected for their child.
As principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, one of the largest independent girls' schools in the country, and someone who once trained state-school teachers, I have a few thoughts on the issue.
Let's focus on the teachers. The basis for the success of any partnership has to be mutual understanding. Does such understanding exist between teachers in the two sectors? Although it is more common now to find teachers with experience of both sectors, how many teachers in the independent sector think that teaching in a state school is about facing large classes of very mixed ability with, invariably, some disruptive pupils, and where the quality of work is low and the teacher's role is more that of policeman than teacher?
How many teachers in the maintained sector think that staff in the independent sector have an easy time of it: unlimited resources, and small classes of able children? There may be some truth in these generalisations, but there is also much myth. Future co-operation will not be assisted by teachers who generalise or whose minds are closed. The recent "fly-on-the-wall" television programme involving the head of an independent school trying to teach in a London comprehensive did nothing to dispel such prejudices.
Within the maintained sector there is a vast range of types of school which would all define their success differently. It is true that there are some schools which are demoralised and where the children have few advantages, but there are many more maintained schools which are confident and purposeful, innovative and successful.
Similarly, it would be misguided to group all independent schools together. Not only could you not employ the four adjectives above to describe all of them, but one of the strengths of the sector is the essence of independence - the right to be different.
So, the first element of any worthwhile partnership must be an open mind. With this prerequisite we can set about benefiting from collaboration. There is already quite a lot of interaction: joint debates and conferences; help with Oxbridge interviews; sharing the cost of a foreign language assistant; lending sports facilities and so on. But to me there is an assumption implicit in the Government's stance which, if I were employed in the maintained sector, I would find mildly offensive, namely that best practice is to be found in the independent sector. There is excellent practice in both sectors and we can learn much from each other.
For example, good teachers in the maintained sector will employ a wide range of teaching styles and strategies, build differentiation into their study programmes and have very effective classroom management. It is probably safe to generalise and say that, partly in response to Department for Education and Employment requirements, the maintained sector is ahead on school improvement strategies and on the introduction of formal target-setting for individual pupils in particular. But it is in the area of in-service training and opportunities for professional development that the independent sector has most to learn from the maintained one: few independent schools have a per capita budget for staff development and four days devoted to training each year.
Today more than ever before, we need in schools - all schools - a belief among staff that we can all get better at what we do, where we are receptive to new approaches. Surely one of the hallmarks of a successful school is its willingness to invest in the staff and yet, for a profession whose raison d'etre has been to educate, we have been astonishingly poor at providing opportunities for staff development. We can all learn much from the enlightened approach adopted in many other areas of professional life.
Professional development is a vital part of what we do since whatever sector we are in we are all facing the same crisis, namely chronic teacher shortage in the years ahead.
There is still antipathy towards independent schools in some university departments of education and I hope that the Government's initiative will lead those working in such institutions to set aside their prejudice. There are some excellent initial teacher-training programmes which bring together teachers from schools in both sectors. The contact and the exchange of good practice this allows, as well as the broader experience it affords the trainee teacher, is a good model to follow for all members of the profession.
And what is there in the independent sector that we can identify as our strengths, what enables us to be successful? Can these things be exported, shared? If asked about my school, I would cite the tremendous work ethic and high expectations, the excellent level of motivation on the part of staff and girls; and the academic calibre and integrity of the staff who must inevitably be attracted to teach in a school with a sixth form of about 300 girls.
I would also mention the breadth of subject choices and subject combinations which we can allow, unconstrained as we are by the tight requirements of the national curriculum; the sense of community and respect for tradition; the quality of our careers and higher education advice, and our pastoral care and the breadth of the extra-curricular programme. These last two elements are particularly important for a boarding school and they reflect our educational commitment to "the whole person".
I deliberately have not mentioned finances, but it is axiomatic that parents choosing independent schools are prepared to pay in order for their child to be taught in smaller groups and to benefit from superior resources and facilities. But these things do not alone constitute a good school. The common characteristic of every good school regardless of sector is a sense of self-belief, a confidence in the value of the task in hand - the education of young people - and an absenceof cynicism.