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Life isn't fair

Monday, 19 November 2018

Principal's Blog

As parents, we often need to tell our children that life isn’t fair. For my children it tends to be on birthdays: ‘It’s not fair that Walter gets presents, why isn’t it my birthday too?’

In every household, at whatever level, children will see the immediate unfairness that exists in our day to day lives.

When it comes to education, then, why are we determined to try and adjust something which cannot be fixed? Whilst I was delighted to see the Chancellor give up a previously reported ambition to borrow Labour’s policy to put VAT on school fees in the budget at the end of October, his pledge to help with the ‘little extras’ reinforces a view that small changes might fix things, in a context where there is little evidence to support that. Whether you are born into a family which is able to offer you an education in an independent school, be it by bursary, great sacrifice or comfortable affluence, or into one who live in a tough estate in a large city where you go to a large comprehensive with classes of thirty or more pupils, life may not seem fair.

It isn’t.

But nor is the fact that some children are born with higher intelligence than others; that some respond to the challenges in their lives with resilience and grit and others feel defeated by the things that go wrong. We are always in danger of replacing one advantage of birth (our parents wealth or lack thereof) with another advantage of birth which was no more earned by its beneficiary. And it’s not just intelligence that comes to some and not others without regard for society’s desire for things to be fair. Some children are born prettier than others and make millions on a catwalk whilst some are born with a talented right foot or a great voice. Life isn’t fair.

We seem to forget that as a society, our obligation is to offer everyone enough that it gives everyone a chance to thrive or fall. We cannot offer everyone the same thing and should not feel obliged to. Communism fell across the world because a desire to make everything the same demotivated everyone. Some people work harder than others, are prepared to spend longer studying to learn skills for specific jobs (so losing years where they could be earning) or are simply luckier than their peers in some way or other. There are plenty of pupils who pass through schools with the greatest reputations in the world and still fail to make much of the opportunities they are given or their lives beyond it; there are some pupils who go to schools with huge social and environmental challenges but still make it to the top Universities in the land or find paths as entrepreneurs, politicians or other change makers.

Social mobility is about opportunity, albeit not a fair opportunity. It isn’t a level playing field because some pupils find reading or adding up comes easily and others, who may or may not suffer from any number of identifiable learning difficulties, find the words or numbers swim on the page and have to fight to make them stand still, let alone decode them. Some of us have loving parents and others have parents that are largely disinterested or indeed, sadly, no parents at all. Fairness doesn’t even come into it.

And all of us lucky enough to be born in this country have a huge advantage over those children born in the slums of Kibira in Kenya or Rocinha in Brazil where there is little to no chance of an education and so no chance of climbing out of the place that life has put you.

Isn’t it time we stopped trying to achieve the impossible which is to level the playing field and spend time instead communicating a message to all children that it is their aspiration that will define them, no matter where they go to school? A friend of mine runs a large primary school in the north of England with a 63% pupil premium. Despite inherent disadvantages to his starting point, he has used the power of social media to show the children in his school that anything is possible (most recently a hilarious Meghan and Harry meet in Blackpool as five year olds film that was viewed millions of times). His energy, creativity and belief in his children, alongside a talented and dedicated staff, is opening their eyes, and the eyes of their parents, to a world where anything is achievable - much more so with every step we take in giving access to mass communication to everyone. And his children achieve better results because of it; he shows them the art of the possible.

Across the country there are thousands of amazing schools doing amazing work. It sounds like a wonderful dream that every child goes to a pristine ivory tower where they learn with enthusiasm in classes of ten pupils and no other children are ever cruel to them. It is a wonderful dream and is one which we can never achieve. We must all be able to recognise the fairy tale in that. I don’t even think we should want to achieve it; schools and environments are different; different children succeed in different circumstances. Does it mean we give in? Of course not. But let’s stop pedaling the myth that we can make everything equal and instead focus on how to use the schools we have - all of them. Independent schools are in increasingly meaningful partnerships with state colleagues to ensure we develop the best systems in the world but still we attack them with VAT rises on fees, threats to remove rates and general vilification that they are unwanted.

When parents choose to support that talented right foot that their son or daughter has by paying extra for a football academy we support the aspiration, even though the chances of success are not far off the odds of playing the lottery; when parents choose to make great sacrifices to send their children to an independent school we write them off as being rich and profligate.

Isn’t it time we stop attacking schools of any colour? Instead, let’s work to create aspiration in as many children as possible in every school, let’s inspire children from any background to feel that they can achieve great things (whether that be as hairdressers, lawyers, factory workers or rock stars), let’s pay our teachers well in every school and encourage them to find the place they think they can have greatest impact. If we focus on the art of the possible, we can realise how remarkable the possible can be.

Chris Wheeler
Principal Monkton Combe School

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