As far as career changes go, mine was pretty dramatic. One moment in August 1984, I was a captain in the British army, on the north German plain in Celle. Then just a few weeks later, I was working in a Leicestershire Comprehensive on the first of two teaching placements for my PGCE.
It was assumed by many, I guess because of my background and experience, that I would teach in the independent sector. Back in the Eighties however, it seemed to me that independent schools were an endangered species, likely soon to ‘wither on the vine’. I moved happily into my first teaching job and enjoyed many years working with young people in a variety of state schools, in time becoming headmaster of a suburban state selective school.
Throughout those years I noticed that the independent sector thrived and flourished; today I find myself the proud headmaster of one of the country’s ancient and great independent day schools, providing co-educational opportunities for students from age 5 to 18. What brought me here, and more significantly, why do so many families opt for such a school? Talking with prospective entrants at my current school, I find that many of the factors that led to my move to the independent sector are mirrored in the concerns of parents and children.
It is sobering to reflect that despite decades of extensive investment in our state educational system, an innumerable plethora of Government-inspired educational initiatives, and the current recession, the independent schooling sector continues to receive a steady stream (in many cases a growing stream) of new entrants.
When I meet with prospective parents and their children, they are excited by the calm and purposeful nature of a flourishing independent school. They pick-up and comment on the pervasive atmosphere of learning, achievement, mutual respect and happiness evident as students and staff go cheerfully about their day. Prospective families are typically ‘wowed’ by current students’ poise, confidence and commitment; at the same time they are bowled over by the breadth of educational experience our students have and the impressive range of academic, cultural and sporting student endeavours. Parents are increasingly aware of the importance of an educational provision that is successful in building children’s sense of self worth, their intellectual confidence and their sense of personal and social responsibility – all of which demonstrably goes to securing genuine and vital achievement in learning.
The secret of independent schools, as I discovered first hand from being on both sides of the fence, is the freedom we have to focus on what really matters in a child’s development at school. We thrive, precisely because we do not have to respond to the latest educational whim from a centralised educational bureaucracy; well-meant initiatives perhaps, but all too often the product of muddled thinking. Our current Government demonstrably has ambitions to extend to the state system the freedoms and opportunities that bear fruit in the independent sector; time will tell if they can be successful – our last Government largely failed with similar aspirations.
Yet already the state/independent school traffic is not all one way. In recent years we have seen old and established independent schools move into the state system as academies and now some are seeking to become ‘free schools’. The state system is inheriting schools with proud traditions and high expectations, but whether these institutions will be able to thrive in a different culture remains an open question. I hope that they will.
For today’s parents it is, of course, their child’s education that can not be left to chance. It is not surprising that after decades of debate about education and a bewildering number and variety of Government initiatives, parents – better informed and with higher expectations than ever before – are unwilling to leave their children’s education to chance. They instead aspire to the quality of provision, focus on excellence, commitment to the individual and proven track record that our great independent schools continue to offer.