I have been a teacher of English for 24 years, a Headteacher for 9 years and, at the age of 48, this much I know about bridging the independent-state school divide.
All our certainties seem to be crumbling away. In our complex, changing world hang on to your values and do what’s right for your students.
Headteachers like talking about themselves; what follows is relevant to my theme – promise! I played golf for Sussex against the Worthing Golf Club on 11 December 1982; on the way home, having changed from Farahs into drainpipes, my dad dropped me off outside the Brighton Centre. I touted a ticket and spent three glorious, sweaty hours in the mosh-pit at the Jam’s last ever concert. I have spent my life walking that line between vastly different cultures. They played Eton Rifles, of course…
The class divide is exemplified beautifully in golf. The Artisan Golf Association has 70 clubs on its membership list and is for working class golfers. Each Artisan club shares a golf course with the “parent” club; each one has a separate, modest changing room-cum-clubhouse, reduced fees and limited times to play at weekends. As a youth I was a member of the Artisan Triangle Golf Club based at Piltdown Golf Club in deepest Sussex. We got changed in a well-kitted out shed across the road from the spacious, rambling country house which is still the Piltdown Golf Club’s clubhouse:
The Artisan changing rooms are beyond the parked cars on the right
As a 12 year-old golf fanatic I was oblivious to the class apartheid of my golfing world. Only when I became good enough to play for Sussex did I realise what being an Artisan golfer meant; it meant I couldn’t play for Sussex. I couldn’t join the Piltdown parent club as I hadn’t been to private school (one of the main qualifying criteria for membership) so I joined Crowborough Golf Club, ten miles and a bus journey up the road. I went on to be the course record holder at Piltdown, to captain the Sussex U18s & U23s and play for the full Sussex team.
The true gentry amongst the Piltdown parent club in the late ’70s treated the Artisan members with the greatest courtesy. Captain Bartlett’s gin-filled eyes dripped with affection when he conversed with my dad; when dad died the parent club flew their club flag at half-mast. It was the bourgeois middle-class members who were snobby.
The impact of the class divide upon young people is indelible. Upon returning to Piltdown Golf Club fifteen years ago, as a 33 year-old Deputy Headteacher and father, I was still deeply reluctant to use the only available pay-phone – it was located just inside the front door of the parent clubhouse. And that experience crystallises for me the enormity of our students’ journey from the estate at the bottom of Huntington Road to a professional career.
You can’t aspire to something you don’t know about. Despite my three grade As at A level in the early ’80s, my comprehensive school teachers never once mentioned Oxbridge to me or my cleaner mother and postman father.
The difference between what you want to do and what you think you can do if you’re a working class kid is the key. We are all bound by our own self-imposed limits. The thing is, when I walked the hallowed corridors of the remarkable Whitgift School last Saturday I could imagine its students feeling that the world was theirs. Just look at the first team cricket pitch…
If the UK were more equal, we’d all be better off as a population. That’s the conclusion of Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their seminal text on the socially corrosive effects of income inequality, The Spirit Level. If one of our boys I spoke to yesterday, who is talented, good-looking, charming, funny, but with a chaotic home life, is going to thrive in a socially immobile world we have to give boys like him personalised, aspirationally different experiences. Doing what we have always done is nowhere near enough any more.
The Independent-State School Partnership in York is thriving. Bootham, The Mount and St. Peter’s are great schools and I have not one single reservation about working with them in the York ISSP, because, as Wilkinson and Pickett make clear, we all benefit. Together we provide our students and staff with great experiences – educationally, culturally and socially – which break down any divisions that might exist between us. I reckon what we’re doing is pretty special – click our logo below and see the opportunities available to our youngsters.
Reach for the Michelin stars, not McSchools. Sir Ken Robinson’s piece in the TES encapsulates the fundamental problem we have in state schools; his article in this morning’s Guardian is equally apposite. Our students’ futures depend upon us all being truly great teachers but the ridiculous sense that there is a formula to teaching we have to adhere to has crippled state school teaching for too long. Jonathan Taylor, Headteacher of Bootham School, said to me at Wednesday’s ISSP meeting that he spends his time encouraging his teachers to capture their students’ imaginations in whichever way they can, rejecting any notion that there is a standardised way to teach. Lesson objectives, smectives…
I wish my school, 35 years ago, had had HOAP. We have the Huntington Oxbridge Application Programme which encourages our Year 9s to begin thinking about which top university they would like to attend and supports them through to securing a place at their chosen HE institution. My only slight disappointment was being unable to find a name for the programme whose acronym is CERTAINTY.
Raising aspirations doesn’t cost anything. As the biggest school in York we used to receive £160,000 a year to maintain our premises; two years ago that was cut by 80% and £28,000 doesn’t go very far these days. Our students will never enjoy the quality of facilities their private school counterparts are used to, but they can have dreams. Working with our ISSP colleagues we have to do all we can to help keep our students’ dreams alive rather than let them be crippled by a sense of inferiority. That pay-phone still haunts me…