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Recognising brilliance in others makes everyone stronger

Thursday, 01 January 1970

In response to an article written by Libby Purves in The Times last month, Monkton Principal Chris Wheeler responded after a recent trip to Flakefleet School in Fleetwood.  The full article can be found below Mr Wheeler's response.

Sir,
In saying Independent school heads should speak more to the challenges faced by State sector colleagues, Libby Purves articulates an idea that some heads have been thinking for some time. To go further, however, we should not limit ourselves to lobbying about the challenges but also speak to the great things which are happening in many maintained schools and celebrating those achievements and communities.
 
Yesterday, I spent the day in Flakefleet School in Fleetwood. Aside from their emotional performance in Britain’s Got Talent, which saw David Walliams inspired to tears a few weeks ago, Flakefleet is a school which embodies aspiration and really does #daretodream. The Head and I have been exploring what benefits collaboration might bring for some time and we both found much to offer one another.
 
Despite being in a challenging catchment area with more than half of pupils eligible for pupil premium, the pupils I met were motivated, sparky, inspired and thoughtful. Whether in the conversation I had with a Year 1 pupil brimming over with enthusiastic curiosity about tadpoles, high levels of engagement in assembly or insightful analysis of Chaucer's Miller from year 6 pupils, Flakefleet is a school where pupils are taught to believe that anything is possible and many look likely to achieve it.

Schools are only one part of the social mobility crucible but too easily we are drawn into commenting on the ‘red pen’ of what isn’t going well; celebrating those who achieve amazing things is one way school leaders can support each other, whether independent heads speaking to the strengths of colleagues in state schools or vice versa.

Yesterday, I walked away from a wonderful, warm school (the happiest school in the land, no less) knowing I had learned as much as I had offered. The sense that we bring different strengths to the table and should both be valued is vital here and that means celebrating the success as well as supporting one another in our challenges; effective cross sector collaboration is good for all children in schools of all flavours. A partnership of equals can enrich, learn from, fight for and praise each other; such a partnership will ensure that British education is the admiration of the rest of the world.

Yours faithfully,
Chris Wheeler

Private School Heads must become Influencers - by Libby Purves for the Times newspaper April 19 2019
Any liberal, socially thoughtful person has qualms about private schools and the idea that the rich buy their children a head start, irrespective of intelligence and talent. Only 7 per cent are privately educated yet they dominate politics, finance, arts, media and elite sport.

It is easy to feel that a mercenary good fairy waves banknotes over some cradles. Three quarters of judges and a third of MPs were privately educated; top universities hardly get more than half their intake from ordinary schools. In power, after a brief run of state-educated leaders — Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major — we slumped back to the patrician, Macmillanesque past with Blair and Cameron. Now, more private-school alumni wait in the wings.

The alarming thing is that the gap in lifelong prosperity and influence actually widened between my 1950s generation and our children’s. The demise of the grammar schools didn’t help: my husband had a better state education, certainly in science, than me in a Kentish convent. Our own children’s final school, a naval charitable foundation with a mainly bursary-funded intake, had a public-school ethos but when Paul first stepped in he recognised every detail “right down to the paintwork” from High Storrs grammar.

His 1960s Sheffield headmaster revered the classics and Oxbridge academia, kept unquestioned discipline and even matched the snuffling mystification of the head in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On (his “facts of life for boys” session consisted of a statement that everything they needed would be found in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse).

Thus in the mid 20th century, in certain schools public-school rigour came free, complete with retro absurdities. Then comprehensives arrived. The divisive 11-plus was not much mourned, though who can say that our intensive Sat testing, league tables and sneaky off-rolling of problem pupils make us any kinder? But dismayingly, the social gap between fee-payers and others widened. Some on the left prefer not to question the historic management of state schools, but instead blame a tiny handful of private ones for “limiting the life chances” of outsiders. Labour wants to slap 20 per cent VAT on fees, the Tories threaten charitable status, and everyone is irritated by old-boy networks.

Now, unusually, head teachers in the private sector have come out fighting, saying that they save the taxpayer £20 billion a year, pay £4.1 billion tax, provide more employment than the whole of Liverpool, fundraise for bursaries and scholarships and make partnerships with local schools. They do have a point, and philosophically the existence of any excellent education is a national good. Even if it is unfairly spread.
It is also worth saying that not all independent schools have social cachet (mine certainly didn’t). Sometimes parents do seek status or networks, or even value that elusive and often unpleasant behavioural quirk known as “polish”. But more often it is because the only state alternative is poor, or the fee-paying school offers green space, music, sport, art and drama.

Of course private schools make mistakes, the most common being to spend millions on ridiculous grand facilities and glitzy brochures, and hike the fees up so high that they fill up with international boarders and lose the middle class. Who then cheat and manoeuvre their way into the best state schools. Fees have certainly shot up beyond inflation: why would a day school need to charge three times more per pupil than the state spends? Maybe twice, maximum.

It would hardly be healthy if the private sector was bullied out of existence and the only education available was government-ruled, parsimonious, and led by an ever-changing procession of education secretaries. These amateur meddlers rarely last more than two years: my son saw off five before he was ten. There is no guarantee that without private schools state ones would abruptly improve. A series of governments has underfunded, overloaded and disrupted them. It is hard to see how feeding in that extra 7 per cent of children while giving up the £4 billion in tax would help.

There is another way, beyond their slowly increasing attempts at outreach, that independent schools could add national value. They are test beds for what works. Whenever state schools are squeezed, private heads should join the argument and utter unwelcome truths. They could affirm that smaller class sizes do matter, and do improve outcomes. They could rudely say that their paying parents would not put up with disruptively overcrowded classrooms, so state school pupils shouldn’t have to put up with them either (forms of 36 or more have trebled in the past six years). They could also stir things up in a time of shrinking school music, arts and sport by pointing out that their long experience proves how these things contribute both to academic standards and happiness. They could express shock at the sale of a nearby school’s playing fields.

They should say that all children need these good things, and relate how they have helped some flourish after uncertain starts (not all independent schools cater for the brightest). They could bravely point out that the most important product of education is not a certificate, but something invisible and interior. They could say in public something they often privately remark, which is that whenever they visit a good state school they gasp “how do you manage on that budget?”
They could rock the national boat, be a ginger group, risk the contumely and stand alongside their beleaguered state colleagues. The £20 billion argument is only a start.

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