Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
Hamlet’s troubled soliloquy popped into my head on the train home from a HMC meeting in Newcastle this week. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t feeling particularly angsty at the time. The Vale of York was bathed in late winter sunshine and some fairly gentle JJ Cale was playing in my earphones. However, earlier in the day I had been party to discussions about the frosty and sometimes hostile treatment – ‘slings and arrows’ – of independent schools in our national media.
We don’t feel entirely friendless, but the generic antipathy towards the independent sector that some public figures and journalists continue to articulate is now, for me at least, becoming a tired and uninteresting narrative.
Lord Lucas, former Etonian, Conservative peer and owner of the Good Schools Guide (I imagine he’s sold a few more copies on the back of his comments), announced in an interview to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) recently that state schools have improved so much that independent schools “are on the wane” and prophesised “a serious bleed out of the independent system”.
Much of what Lord Lucas said has been picked up and picked apart already. It is true that some first class independent schools, largely in the Midlands and North, have struggled due to the lengthening economic downturn in the regions. But schools like BGS are adaptable and resilient, often by virtue of their independence. They flex and continue to deliver even in challenging times – and when the economic climate ameliorates, the sector grows again.
The Independent Schools Council (ISC) responded to Lord Lucas. ISC reminded TES readers that in terms of A-level points per exam “independent schools occupied 84 of the top 100 places and last year a third of independent school GCSE entries were awarded an A* compared with 7 per cent nationally”. The rebuttal continued on various other fronts.
Fundamentally, the independent sector does not regard school improvement as a zero-sum game. All schools, state and private, can improve over time. I’m delighted that many maintained schools are improving, but not at the expense of the independent sector which is evolving, developing and expanding too. To set up artificial and adversarial divisions between different types of schools is unhelpful – at BGS, as elsewhere, we are collegial not competitive.
Other stories have emerged this past week reflecting the performance of UK schools and how we should regard the contribution of the independent sector to our nation. After the 2012 Olympics there was a volume of comment either celebrating or bemoaning the fact that 54 of the 114 GB medal winners had attended an independent school (as I recall, Yorkshire was also well represented in that table!). The same thing is happening now with regards to the arts, and once again I can’t quite work out if the independent sector is being praised for its success or criticised for exerting a disproportionate influence on UK life.
The Sutton Trust has provided the grist for this debate and headlines like “How private school education could clinch you a BAFTA or BRIT award” are the result. The reality is that independently educated folk make a tremendously positive contribution to the socioeconomic and cultural fabric of UK life. More broadly we might also note the recent headlines in The Times and the Guardian “Private school gives pupils a boost with two extra years.”
It’s odd that Hamlet talked to me on my train journey home – perhaps this is what happens when you become a Headmaster? I rolled into Skipton wondering how to best navigate the relationship between independent schools and national media.
Then I thought to myself, what’s important to remember here is that independent schools are and have constantly been under the spotlight, and Britain’s education landscape will continue to be intensely debated, with media spins (both positive and negative).
At BGS we pride ourselves on our determination to succeed and to see the positive aspects in any challenge we face. This is no different to navigating difficult waters with national media, which is both a test and our opportunity to show what BGS does best – provide a world class school in Yorkshire where pupils are happy and valued. Throughout these years of debates we continue to deliver excellence in all that we do, even in challenging times – and we continue to succeed.
“At BGS we pride ourselves on our determination to succeed and to see the positive aspects in any challenge we face. This is no different to navigating difficult waters with national media, which is both a test and our opportunity to show what BGS does best – provide a world class school in Yorkshire where pupils are happy and valued.”