I work at a private school. There, I said it. I often come in for criticism, even from close friends working in the state sector. I am often made to feel that somehow I am not deemed a “proper” teacher, that I don’t feel the same strains and pressures; I am living a cushy life in a protective little bubble. I have endless holidays, I have small class sizes, I work in a stately home. And yes, in many ways that is the truth, but are the pressures so different? Is working in a private school so great? Well, it has certainly saved my teaching career.
It all comes down to one thing (doesn’t it always?): money. I have worked in both the maintained and independent sectors in my teaching career but, after two years in the state sector, I was ready to walk away from teaching. My PGCE training had simply not prepared me for the reality of teaching in a state sector under relentless pressure to deliver ever-better results with ever-decreasing funds.
I felt like a plate-spinner who, instead of spinning the plates and just dropping a few here and there, was having them thrown at them in quick succession. With food on. Followed by pudding. Then coffee.
I’m not naive. I knew before I went into the profession that school funding was undergoing a new round of cuts. What I was not aware of was the additional pressure being applied to teachers on top of shrinking resources. I was, quite regularly, greeted with a member of SLT at the back of my classroom, clipboard in hand, questioning my students about their Fischer Family Trust, matching their predicted progress with their actual progress. Every time the classroom door opened, I would wait with bated breath, ready to face the onslaught of questioning; data sheets and colour-coded seating plans at the ready, with each new request seeking to explain things that were often beyond rational analysis.
Admittedly, this sort of accountability influenced my development as a teacher: being put under such scrutiny at such an early stage in my career has made me resilient, and aware of the impact of data, as well as the need to be able to defend one’s position.
But did it make me love teaching? No. Did that fire burn inside me to create lovers of literature? No. It had burnt me out and I felt I had aged about 20 years. I felt as if I were creating functional students who had the framework to answer Q1 perfectly; they could jump willingly through the highest of hoops, but they had no zest for literature, no love for the beauty of our language. I needed to get out.
So, what do you envisage when you think of private education? Boys doffing their boaters? Girls in their tartan skirts? Hogwarts-esque buildings? Such perceptions still exist, and are perpetuated every time the Guardian illustrates a story about the sector with an image of Etonians in tails. And I bought into this myth, and began to search Tes for a new job. I chatted to colleagues who worked in fee-paying schools, questioning them about their seemingly privileged position. I quite quickly began to realise that the biggest difference between the two sectors was not the dress codes or arcane practices, but money. And that makes all the difference in the world.
I now work in a selective, co-educational boarding school. My largest class size is 24, which is the same size as in my previous state school; I still have termly reports to write (in much more detail) and data to track, targets to meet (although neither are now related to my pay). I have to write weekly reports. I still have parents to deal with, who are arguably more involved wing to their financial investment.
Suddenly, with funding issues gone, the world seemed a brighter, and more liberal place. I could photocopy in colour, and as many pages as I needed. I could order new books. I could teach all of the wonderful books I had longed to teach, and didn’t have to reach for the 20-year old dust-ridden copies of Of Mice and Men that were falling apart. I could book out the iPads.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses: I would be expected to work long weeks (including teaching on a Saturday), sometimes weeks on end without a day off. I would have to do one evening duty every week. I would have to coach a sports team. These were part of my job description, not add-ons. I would have to become a part of that school, wholeheartedly.
The difference is that this time, I wanted to. It was so much easier when surrounded by colleagues who were fortunate enough to have the resources to do their jobs well. We hear a lot about gaps in education: the gender gap, the skills gap, the attainment gap. But, I keep returning to this one: the funding gap.
Closing the gap
I soon realised that these children were not being given a better education because their teachers were better than those in the school I had just left. In fact, I started to look at it from a different perspective: the resources that independent schools have should be the norm, the benchmark, which should be the same in state schools.
I wonder if it is too idealistic to hope that the gap between the resources in the state and independent sectors could be narrowed so that the opportunities that independent schools offer their students can be available to a growing number of less privileged students.
So, did the independent sector save my career? Yes, it reignited that love I had for literature, for passing that curiosity and creativity down to the children I teach and nurture. I have support to fund the lessons I’ve longed to teach.
But if the state school I had started my career at had the right amount of funding, would I have left? No. I loved that school, my colleagues, my students, and I have huge respect for those teachers who continue to work in a sector increasingly starved of funds. I loved (nearly) everything about it. But that “nearly” proved to be based on something too significant to disregard or overcome. I have no doubt that others will come to the same, sad conclusion.
Abigail Croot is a teacher of English at Bryanston School in Dorset