Challenging stereotypes of Independent Schools

This post is inspired by a letter I read in this week’s Times Educational Supplement written by an ex-Deputy Head at Nottingham High School for Girls, Jill Berry. In her letter she bemoaned the fact that whenever newspapers talk of independent schools they include images like the one here top left which merely serve to confirm people’s stereotypes of Independent Schools. The reality is often very different and the other image here taken in our own school playground is much closer to reality.

There are many myths about schools such as my own. The first is that many people believe that independent schools are full of rich people, people who can easily afford the high fees. It is true that at the High School we do have some wealthy parents but this is no different to one of the state schools in the wealthier parts of the city. The reality is that many of our parents are making huge sacrifices to pay the school fees, having to live in smaller homes or give up holidays or work exceedingly long hours in order to afford the fees. In addition to this we have nearly 100 boys in the school (about 13% of our total numbers) who receive fee assistance in the form of bursaries. Many of these are supported for over 75% of the fees and there are a number of boys whose parents pay no fees at all as a result of their household income qualifying them for a free place. Thus, to portray a school such as ours as a bastion of privilege is somewhat unfair. We enable genuine social mobility for many of our students who go on to be the first one from their family to attend university. We work hard to promote these bursaries in all areas of the city and welcome all applications irrespective of ability to pay. Yes, these funds are limited and in an ideal world we would have even more bursaries but the end result of this is that we are much more socially diverse than people give us credit for. The majority of our parents are first-time buyers of independent education.
Another myth about indpendent schools like the High School is that we are just academic exam factories, hell-bent on pushing our students through examinations. Again this is far from the truth. It is true that we have a selective entry – in our case on average we have approaching 200 boys applying for 120 places but people tend then to look at our final exam results and jump to one of two conclusions -either that every boy who enters the School is a genius or that we push them too hard. Neither of these is true – we take in boys from a range of abilities, they will generally be achieving at Level 4 in Key Stage Two Sats and in many cases will be pushing towards Level 5. However, there is a range and people should not be deterrred from applying fearing that the standard is so high that it is unachievable for their son. When boys are with us we work with them over the seven years that they attend the School and it is the quality of our teaching and the quality of our support which helps them to achieve such high grades in the end. Yes, our smaller class sizes help too as does the range of opportunities we provide but it is far from an exam factory. We gain fantastic value-added scores when looking at the progression between ability levels on entering the School and later public examination results but this is the result of hard work by staff, pupils and parents alike.
There are those who believe too that the grand buildings and high walls of our schools have behind them a harsh, uncaring environment. Again this is a myth. Our pastoral care system is seen by parents who we survey regularly to be one of the strongest aspects of our provision. Each boy is assigned an individual tutor upon arrival at the School who looks after their welfare until they leave some seven years later. In that time strong relations are built with both student and parents and thus there is a really caring, soft side at the heart of the School. As each tutor set has boys from all years of the School there are good relations between year groups and this means that younger boys have strong role models from the very beginning. Schools like ours are also culturally and racially mixed and reflect the community of the city we are based in. We work hard to contribute to the wider community in all sorts of ways, not because of the public benefit test imposed by government, but because we believe in being part of the city we work in. Thus, boys from the High School have taken students from a local school on a weekend residential for more than 30 years – well before any public benefit tests. We also work with local primary schools in such ventures as our cricket in the community scheme. We are a long way removed from isolation and segregation here.
Many believe that independent schools turn out arrogant snobs at the end. Again this is far from the reality. One of our marketing messages as a school is ‘Ordinary boys achieving extraordinary things’. In this context by ordinary I mean down-t0-earth, grounded lads who do develop a quiet confidence in their time at the School but who are rarely arrogant and indeed their peers would not let them be. We aim to turn out boys who are comfortable in an interview situation but who are also nice people with a good sense of humour and an ability to be great team players in any situation.
Of course, there are many political reasons why people do not like independent schools but when Lord Adonis, a Labour Minister, spoke of the whole education system needing some of the DNA of independent schools I would say that this is characterised in these sorts of terms.: Parents who care deeply about education, lads who are prepared to work hard but who enjoy their work and their many activities, fantastic pastoral care, selection on entry to ensure that there is a pace to the teaching that suits all and schools which are culturally diverse and whisper it quietly even socially diverse. Our parents are not wealthy hedge-fund managers or the landed gentry, indeed they are rather more likely in our case to be the sons of taxi drivers, office staff, nurses, policemen or doctors. They come from all over the city including some of the areas which suffer real deprivation – a bursary in this situation makes a life-changing experience possible. Thus, perhaps when newspapers do next want a photo of typical independent school students they will consider giving us a call and getting one which is rather more representative of the reality of independent education in the 21st century.