500 years of excellence

On 2nd February 1513 the first lessons were held at Nottingham High School and 500 years on we marked this occasion by hosting a party for colleagues past and present to celebrate this amazing milestone of 500 years of teaching.

In many ways it is tempting to tell the history of a school through the buildings it has been housed in and we certainly have some impressive facilities which we have developed through the years.  However, at the heart of a school are people – those that study with us, the teachers, the support staff and the parents who chose to educate their sons with us.  It is these people that have helped to create the School into what it is today.

In considering what to say at last night’s event I was very aware that I am only the 40th Headmaster of Nottingham High School.  As part of our activities to mark the year all those who work or study at the School were asked to produce 100 words to mark one point in the school day closest to 2nd February.  This is what I said:

“4.10 P.M.

I have just walked past the board with the names of the 40 Headmasters of Nottingham High School on.  As I sit here in my office reflecting on their contribution to the long History of the School, I am humbled to be listed on that board.  The successes, the buildings, the people they have employed, the support of so many benefactors have all gone to create this brilliant school as have no doubt along the way some failures, some tears and some difficult situations to face.  I am so fortunate to lead this superb school 500 years on.”

As I gazed out across the sea of faces attending our party last night I was struck by the fantastic contribution made by everyone who works at the School.  All of us play our own part but the total effort has been to provide excellence in so many areas and in so many different ways.  It was great to see staff from across the generations, both teachers and support staff, all enjoying this celebration and I am sure like me they were also sharing a sense of pride in their own part in the long history of the School.

There is much in the press at the moment about independent school heads feeling ‘demonised’ by media attacks on the independent sector.  I do not feel this way at all.  I am humbled to be leading such a great team of people, proud of the School I lead and very aware at all times that each and every parent who chooses our school has made an active choice to entrust their son to our care.  This is a huge privilege for all of us who work at the School, none more so than when we are sharing such a significant anniversary and as I said in my 100 word piece I am just so very lucky to be the Headmaster of such an outstanding school at this time.  Let us not feel demonised as independent school leaders but proud of the schools we lead and the people who work in them and the students who study with us.  There really is no better job in the world.

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.

Why do so many independent school pupils make the Olympic team?

There has been a good deal of discussion in the press in recent days about the number of athletes in the British Winter Olympics team who have attended independent schools. An example is this article in the Times from Matthew Syed(http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article7020963.ece )
These articles suggest that success in achieving this level in sport is down to parental income or class.

This is far from true in my opinion. Currently I am reading the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. He looks at successful athletes in a wide range of sports and he finds that there are two crucial factors in sporting success. The first of these is one’s date of birth! His thesis is that those players who are born just after an age-group date cut-off are much more likely to be the most successful athletes of the future. So, in football the eligibility date is September 1st and in the year he looked at in the Premier League there were 288 players born between September and November and only 136 born between June and August. This he claims is because the older athletes get more opportunities, hence more chance of success and we write off too many athletes too soon.

His other theory is that it takes 10,000 hours to become world class in any sphere. Thus, the more opportunity one has to get involved the greater the chance there is to be successful.

This brings me back to the fact that so many competing at Olympic level come from independent schools. This is no great surprise given the amount of time and effort independent schools devote to school sport. Most independent schools recognise the value of sport and spend many hours on it. Thus, it is no surprise that the increase in opportunity provided by the sector means that so many world-class athletes emerge. Indeed my own school has two ex-pupils competing at the winter games as well as one who competed in the last summer games.

The way to rectify this situation is to increase the support for sport in all schools. In independent schools fixtures are played every Saturday and for us we ensure depth by putting out up to four sides in each age group. Thus, there is every opportunity for the most able to thrive as well as for all to enjoy their sport. Sadly, there are few maintained schools still offering regular fixtures every single weekend of the school year. Some pupils will go to local sports clubs but others will be lost for good to the X-box and Playstation.

Of course, many independent schools do try to open up their facilities to such clubs. In my school our cricket coaches are involved in a number of inner-city primary schools trying to ensure that there is greater opportunity for all. In this way we hopefully start some more pupils on their way to the 10,000 hours we are told that they will need to be successful. There are maintained schools, I know, where sport is still important but successive governments have sold off playing fields and cut curriculum time for sport and this as much as anything is why so many athletes at the Olympics hail from independent schools.