Friday, 30 September 2011

What State Schools Should Learn From Private Schools

Every now and then something high profile will flag up the age old debate about the relative qualities of private versus state education. So when David Cameron asked a group of headteachers from leading independent schools to attend a meeting at Downing Street, the media pricked up its ears and went in to the usual over-reactive state that is its wont.
The Prime-Minister explored with the group the idea of private schools "helping" state schools to improve. After all, these great public schools all have great GCSE and A Level results, so they must be doing something right, right?
It is entirely wrong to think that this idea has suddenly appeared. Across the country, for as long as both have existed side by side, State and Public schools have been working together. There are countless examples of partnerships and collaboration.
But now that the debate has been focused upon once more, we might at least have the discussion about what should state schools learn from private schools?
Before addressing that question it is important to establish some knowns.
The quality of teaching in State schools is diverse. There are amazing teachers, there are crap ones.
The quality of teaching in Public schools is diverse. There are amazing teachers, there are crap ones.
A little talked about known is that individual teachers are sometimes great when teaching in the State system and terrible when teaching in the Public one and this is conversely true too. It is a misconception to believe that what works well in terms of pedagogy in the Public system can simply be transferred to the State system and vice-versa. The cultures are fundamentally different. This is the exact same mistake that many large scale, international education companies make when designing programmes for other countries: you simply cannot cut and paste a system from one country to the next. You must take account of the culture within that country or community or school. As a Director at Tribal, this was one of my mantras and something that we were obsessed with trying to achieve – for example, when designing education reform programmes in the Gulf nations, we went to great lengths to ensure an understanding of the native culture, shared values and living histories, incorporating Islamic viewpoints and learning from the teachers and community that we worked in.
This is also where the current Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, appears to be missing a crucial importance surrounding the adoption of the Swedish Free School model. But I digress.
Of course it is possible to experiment with pedagogies in both State and Public sectors, to learn and to adopt aspects that are effective. In doing so, the teachers are acting as knowledge creators and are building their own personal pedagogy. But it is absolutely not the case that you can say as a blanket statement: Public schools do X and are successful, so State schools must also do X.
This is why many teachers find they are unable to move between working in either of the two systems.
Collaboration, when it is truly such, between State and Public schools allows for this formative knowledge creation and pays dividends to all involved.
Are Public schools better than State schools? Well, no. Some are, some aren't. Yet, misguided, many politicians want to believe that Public schools are the more effective machine. In part, of course, this is due to the fact that the majority of politicians attended Public schools and are therefore bound by their personal experience – if it worked for them, then surely it would work for all.
But surely children who attend Public schools do better than those at State schools? Well, in some cases they do. But, importantly not all. And yet in these cases where students do worse or as well as their State school counterparts, they still have more success later in life. And here we are coming to what State schools really should learn from the private sector.
My home town of Oundle nestles on the Cambridgeshire / Northamptonshire border and has for many, many years been dominated by Oundle School. It is a fine Public school, which brings prosperity to the town.
Oundle take in a wide range of students, from across the country and overseas. Many of these students, bless them, are what I can only describe as nice-but-dim types. Thoroughly decent children, maybe superb at rugger, but not a great deal going on upstairs when it comes to "academic" ability.
Let's consider a nice-but-dim Oundle boy. What will become of him? Well, he'll pick up a bunch of GCSE grades around the national average, maybe a C in mathematics and English and a handful more. He then sits his A Levels, because that is what you do, gets a couple of OK grades, maybe one fail. And off he plods to university. Let's say he signs up to a Psychology degree at a half decent uni and has three terrific years having a jolly good time and picking up a run of the mill 2:2 in a subject that was neither here nor there to him. What happens to him?
Pause for a moment and consider another lad at Bog Standard Comp in a town somewhere in England. He gets the same grades and degree. What happens to him?
Flash forward 20 years. Now if each of these scenarios were a probability distribution, it would be very likely that our Mr Nice-But-Dim is now very successful in a field that interested him (maybe the media or politics or the city). He will be earning well above the national average, his work will typically consist of leading others, he will be a homeowner, he will be happy in his work-life balance.
Our other chap? He'll be doing ok too. But probably just ok. He'll be in a stable job, and it will pay slightly above national average, he will maybe have one or two people who report to him, but probably not. He will own his own home. His work-life balance will be unfulfilling.
Why does one child find more success?
Well, this is what State schools should learn from Public schools.
Academic ability and exam results are not the most important aspects of school. They are not the fundamental purpose of a good schooling system. What the Public schools have remembered, to their credit, is that schooling is about the child as a whole. And on the whole, Public schools will work tirelessly at ensuring that the young people who leave their doors have a sense of purpose and pride instilled in them. The boys that leave Oundle are confident. The can start up discussions and hold their own in debate. They have self-belief that they can achieve in the world. The celebrate success. Crucially, they know how to network.
Recently, at a large education conference, a friend of mine asked me how I managed to be involved in so many different projects. It was lunch time, there were companies showcasing their work at stands around a large room. I asked him what he wanted to be involved with and he told me about a couple of ideas and companies that he would like to be linked to. Some of them were in the room. Go and talk to them, I told him.
In these situations, you witness where our State system has gone so wrong.
What the State school system in England has done, particularly over the last 15 years, is forgotten its purpose. Now obsessed with measuring everything, with testing, with grades, with pitching schools against each other, the system has lost sight of what education is about.
What we can learn from the Public schools of England is that by giving children the ability to adapt, to challenge, to question; by instilling in them the belief that risk taking is a good thing; by helping them to follow their dreams; by ensuring that children understand how to network they can achieve.
Education, as Einstein once said, is what remains when you have forgotten all you learned at school.
It is not about content and grades, it is not about average point scores, or giving children meaningless national curriculum levels in each and every lesson. Education is about becoming a better person. About readying yourself for the world and knowing that you count and that your opinions are as valid as everyone else.
One of the reasons that social mobility has come to a grinding halt in England is because we have removed the aspirational aspects of the education system.
There are schools that buck the trend. A friend of mine runs three academies as an Executive Headteacher. I was really interested to visit his schools and see the emphasis placed on meal times. That all the students (and these are students from the very hardest of backgrounds) would eat at the table, using cutlery correctly and engaging in quiet chatter. I asked him about why so much focus has been placed on this and he told me that one day each of those children would go to a job interview. And each and every one of them would be judged on the way they spoke, their body language, their confidence and how they behaved at lunch. How true.
By focusing so heavily on subject content knowledge and pointless measures, the State system has neglected its duty in helping childing to grow in to purposeful and proud citizens who can lead fulfilling lives.
The ability, in Academies, to re-focus your priorities comes from the autonomy that the schools are given. It is this autonomy that allows private schools across the country to recognise the stupidity of much of the initiatives that come from central government and to ignore them, instead focusing on developing the whole child. Perhaps if school leaders were freed of initiative overload, they too would be able to re-focus.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


Sam was beautiful. Her hair was a firey red and her eyes shone.
There is a collection of huge granite spires that stand thousands of feet above the Kern River at the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada in California. As eager fresh faced graduates, we took the easy drive down from Los Angeles with a trunk full of beer and the most basic of climbing essentials. The four of us had been climbing together for years, and had long since abandoned ropes in search of a purer form of excitement. When people would quiz us about the purpose of such apparent foolishness, telling us that we were risking death, our stock reply was "well that's kind of the point." It was exactly that knowledge, that gut-wrenching feeling, that your life is literally in your hands we were trying to capture. There is something about facing your own mortality nakedly that makes the pettiness of much of life disappear and allows you to taste and feel those things that truly matter.
The Needles is a tough climb. The vertical pins protruding along the top of the ridge make for difficult ascents and treacherous descents. Sam sat atop of one of the spires laughing and breathing in the success of her climb. I looked up at her – it was as though she was alight with life. She beamed down to me and yelled "I think I can jump to the next tower." It was an insane move. Any loss of grip on landing would see her plummet thousands of feet to a certain death.
I laughed it off and told her not to be silly. And then she jumped.
And that was Sam. Brave, a bit crazy, full of life and happiness, keen on squeezing every last sensation from every experience. Sam was beautiful.
She landed and gripped hard. Safe. Buzzing.
Some years later it appeared that life had tricked us into becoming grown-ups. I was a teacher, Andrew an architect, James a civil servant. Sam was a banker.
On the afternoon of September 11th 2001, I was teaching algebra to Year 11, Set 1. The air was hot and the classroom uncomfortable. Rebecca, a vibrant young girl with jet black hair, arrived late to class. Immediately she told the room, "Russia has bombed America."
The students looked at her bemused and panicked.
I am glad that the world has changed, I am glad that the students I was teaching that day had been able to grow up in a post cold war society. As soon as she said the words, with complete sincerity and a shot of distress in her eyes, my mind was thrown back to my own childhood and the world of "Protect and Survive" - those government funded public information films that would periodically appear on TV or be shown to us in school, where an animated house would be blasted and then the fallout would begin. Where quick thinking fathers would use their 4 minutes to sturdily erect a bunker inside the house by removing all of the interior doors and nailing them against a wall at 45 degrees, whilst mother painted all of the windows white.
Instantly that feeling in the pit of my stomach that used to keep me awake at night returned. When I would lie staring at the ceiling thinking about the end of the world.
All of this came in to my mind at once. My expression remained fixed. I asked Rebecca to tell me why she thought that Russia attacked the USA and she told me simply "It's on TV, Sir. Right now."
The messages that raced around the globe in those first few moments after American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower were mixed and muddled. The world's media was in constant residence at the World Trade Center, so the explosion of misinformation was instant.
In the back storeroom I found an old TV. I set it on a table at the front of the classroom and tuned to BBC1. A news flash was broadcasting footage of an airliner hitting the skyscraper.
The students were shocked, but a wave of relief came over them too. This was not war. This was not an attack. A terrible, tragic accident had happened.
We all talked for a while about the tragedy. A boy towards the front of the class asked me how many people were in the building. And I knew the answer.
In August that year, Sam had transferred from her company's base in Canary Wharf to an offshoot in the World Trade Center. James, Andrew and I had spent a hurried weekend in New York helping her to get settled. In a bar on the north-east corner of Central Park, Sam had told us excitedly about her first few days in her new office. "You know there are like 50,000 people working there? The place is like a mini-city."
I talked with my class calmly about the World Trade Center for a few more moments and sensing that, although deeply saddened at the great loss of life, they were beginning to calm. We turned off the TV and tried to focus on some work, but I was happy for them to continue conversations where they needed and wanted to.
The lesson ended. I walked to the staff room. It seemed like the entire staff were huddled in to the space. At the far end of the room a large TV told the unfolding story. This was no tragic accident. A second plane had struck.
I thought of Sam and tried to call her from my mobile phone, but the line was busy. An overwhelming sense of relief struck me. She was on her phone, she was safe.
As we all watched the rolling news coverage in silence, the most horrific and unexpected thing happened. South Tower collapsed.
I thought of Sam. But I knew she was dead.
Sam had been on the phone, that much was true. Since then, every now and then, I will sit with Sam's mother and she will describe to me, with tears gently rolling down her cheeks, the 20 minutes that she spent on the phone with her daughter that day. Resigned, Sam explained calmly and with reason, that she was going to die. She told her mother that she had enjoyed her life, that she had been proud to be her daughter, that she would always be with her.
Last night, a group of us met for the first time in years. We sat in Hyde Park and watched the Last Night of the Proms together. Sam's friends and family. And we ate and drank good wine and we talked and talked and talked about the beautiful red headed girl who we all loved. We laughed a lot. And we cried a lot too.
Sam told her mother, as she waited to die, that she didn't understand why anyone would deliberately crash planes in to the World Trade Center, but that she did know that people are good and that good would prevail.
As we held each other's hands last night, singing Auld Lang Syne, I thought about the kindness, the support, the solidarity and strength of everyone that I have met. I thought about the years I have spent in the Middle East. I thought about my friends of all religions condemning the bastardization of Islam by those who don't understand its true message. I thought about the way in which Sam always looked at the world, with a positive spin on everything, seeing the best in the people that she met. I thought about her mother's words of compassion for the world's Muslims who have been wrongly associated with the acts of murderers. And I dreamed for a moment that good will prevail. If I could wish for anything to come from the horror of 9/11, I would want it to be that.