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What State Schools Should Learn From Private Schools

30 September 2011

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.

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