The education sector is in a rut. Independent schools can help to break the cycle, writes Rosie McColl (article originally published in The Telegraph)
Stop stereotyping us as privileged and you’ll discover the difference we’re making across schools and within communities.
It’s an all-too-familiar media trope – a news story about something happening in the independent school sector appears in the papers accompanied by a picture of some boys from Eton in tailcoats. I get it. It’s a shorthand optic for privilege in education and until now no-one’s had time to challenge it….
But that lazy generalizing, which any parent who sends their child, complete with hard-fought-for bursary, to a far less famous, less glamorous but hard-working independent school will know, has always been wildly inaccurate and out of touch.
Now, after all we as a nation have seen our children endure educationally in 2020, that inaccuracy is not just stereotypical but is wasting our time when we should be focusing on the real opportunities that Covid-19 has afforded us.
High master of St Paul’s School Sally-Anne Huang took over the chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistress’ Conference this week and spoke of how she was well used to independent schools being treated as “society’s villains”.
This may have been the case for many decades but I believe Covid-19, the ultimate disruptor and democratiser, has provided us with a new world in which we cannot afford to expend energy rehashing this debate.
Instead we should be using our time to grasp the nettle and transform education – for all children in all schools – in the way that educators have been debating for years.
The education sector has been in a 160-year rut that churns all children, whatever their individual skills and talent, through the same qualifications factory when industry has been telling us for years that essential skills like creativity, resilience, confidence and communication will take them far further in the workplace than a clutch of GCSEs and A levels.
Covid-19 has allowed us to focus on this conversation. We have been granted the opportunity to break the cycle of homogenous education. During lock-down, I had the chance to speak to pupils individually online. This unique fusion of home and school gave me a window into their world and I learnt so much more about them.
It made me more convinced than ever that we should see this pandemic as an opportunity to offer children from all schools in the UK a chance to be educated differently and more relevantly so that they are able to think creatively, take risks, learn quickly, have an idea, test it and move on.
Fighting the same battle
But back to the present, when GCSEs and A levels are still passports to progressing on from school. All schools, state and independent, are fighting the same battle – to ensure our pupils do not lose out from the virus. It is, then, a no-brainer that we should share our remote learning resources with any school that could benefit from it, maintained or not.
And we do. Before lock-down, we had been working on a STEM project with a local primary school. Then we were forced to make it a remote offering and realised soon after that this meant we need not work with just one school but could multiply our impact and offer the remote package to dozens more.
During lock-down, we also delivered online lessons in English and science to primary schools across the city and two of our English teachers ran an online book club for years 4 and 5 throughout the summer. We are also involved in the You Are Never Alone project to connect local schools with care homes.
Why wouldn’t we do this? Technology removed the walls of our school and allowed us to see what is possible. When I took over as head in January, I already had a plan to transform my school at the heart of Brighton into a community hub that the city’s residents could access. Now Covid has expedited this. We plan to turn our spaces into venues for the ailing entertainment industry, invite sports teams in to train in our facilities and create a hub for local entrepreneurs to meet. This is good for everyone – facilities get used by those who live close to them and pupils and their school become fully part of the community in which they live.
Mahatma Ghandi told us “The future depends on what you do today”. Let everything that we have learnt about education during the pandemic inform what we do going forwards. Let’s not waste time on divisions and old scores between the independent and the state sector but instead explore how we can create new partnerships and mine new opportunities from this once-in-a-generation moment.