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Values come before targets

PATRICK TOBIN, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and principal of Stewart's Melville College and Mary Erskine School, struck two sensitive notes in his speech last week to fellow heads. He raised the problems that children from broken and single-parent families are prone to, not all children of course but a higher proportion than from the general population. And he touched on the difficulties nowadays of getting the best results from boys, especially when they sit alongside higher-performing girls.

Since many independent schools owe their reputations to motivating boys, in the exam room or on the sports field, and since the independent sector rescues significant numbers of children from the immediate effects of marital breakdown, Mr Tobin cannot be accused of lack of boldness or of speaking from ignorance. Whether his analysis and prescriptions are generally accepted is less important than that his long experience in independent education led him to address standards through values rather than audits.

No independent head can afford to ignore academic results. Therefore close attention to the disparate needs of pupils - a characteristic of local authority schools as well - is prudent as well as desirable. Government targets and performance indicators mask individual strivings and successes (or failures). Mr Tobin did well to echo Matthew Arnold in challenging utilitarianism while addressing a conference whose theme, almost incredibly these days, was "education into goodness".

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