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…

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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…


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This post has 18 Comments

  1. I am still crippled by my failing the 11 plus and ending up at the secondary modern – I still have to fight the feeling I’m stupid. My choices were typing, cooking and childcare. At 23 I returned to education, got a 2:1 and trained at Homerton to become a teacher. I now spend much of my time trying to build confidence in students labelled non- academic and who spent their time in bottom sets regaling stories of behaviour rather than learning. Segregation runs deep and it is virtually impossible to get out of those sets once assigned to them. Aspirations and high expectations for all kids is vital in state schools not just those who have been cherry picked to be like their private school peers. The pay phone haunts you as a symbol of social inferiority – for me, a room full of grammar school or top set educated teachers is a symbol of my academic inferiority. They still had choices……

  2. What a powerful article. As a migrant from New Zealand, it has taken me a lot longer than I thought possible to even begin to come to grips with the depth and subtlety of the class stratification in England. This article helps, because it demonstrates that the inequality is encoded on the ‘baseband’ and thus can at once be imperceptible and at the same time fundamental and all-pervasive. I feel proud of my egalitarianism, coming from a country populated as it is by those who sought to abandon those class divisions.
    Whenever I have wanted to challenge underlying inequality, I’ve felt there are two actions that have a real effect. The first is to name, dispassionately, the truth. “Why do you think that most of this country’s politicians are white men from wealthy backgrounds?”. We can go a long way towards raising the aspirations of the students in our urban comprehensive schools by working to challenge the shame that you so beautifully describe in your payphone anecdote.
    Frequently students in my inner London classroom who are of African or Caribbean descent will talk of how they are targets of the police’s “Stop and Search” actions. There are statistics to support their experience of inequality, and having been stopped once myself as a teenager and had my car searched by the police I do not underestimate the feeling of humiliation at this invasion. The difference though, is that I had recourse to a sense of outrage too, feeling as I did that social agents like the police existed in my service. This sense of entitlement is the right of us all, but accorded to strikingly few.
    Before I start discussing with these brilliant young Englishmen their university aspirations, I first reflect on the fact that their path is a heroic one. I discuss with them that they must first overcome the internalised limitations that a life of such experiences engenders. I also, once again due to my New Zealand cultural values, show high levels of respect and recognition of the aspects of their own family and cultural background that mean they have as much to offer as to gain from the venerable institutions they may join in their sparkling future careers. They might even become our Prime Minister, the Chief Justice, a Head Teacher, a News Presenter, a successful Banker, a Police Officer, an artist… but perhaps not a future King.

  3. This is such a well-written piece John. Aspiration is key to improving life chances for young people. One of the things we discuss in our blog is about trying to develop a critical thinking programme to help the most able apply for Oxbridge. After we visited Highgate school in North London and saw how students were so at ease talking in a range of contexts, that’s when we saw the difference between their students and our students – even though they were getting the same grades at GCSE and AS.
    Private schools have so many extra ‘enrichment’ opportunities; when students take advantage of these – be it in the Arts, Sport or Science – it makes them believe they will reach the top. Furthermore, when we observed lessons at the school, we didn’t see a learning objective in sight or lots of whizzy resources. What we do see though was students questioning their teachers eloquently and engaging in serious dialogue with their peers. Students were also given time to write in silence for extended periods of time without being interrupted to check on their progress!
    We asked the deputy head at Highgate why so many of their students applied and were accepted to Oxbridge. He paused for a moment before saying: ‘Well, they are told from a young age that is where they will go if they work hard. There is a sense of entitlement, almost.’ It seems very un-PC to say these sorts of things but state schools need to learn these lessons from private schools, if our students are ever to compete with their privately-educated counterparts.

  4. Excellent post John which makes its points with great power and grace. Working in Lincolnshire we have to find better ways of getting grammar and secondary modern schools working with and learning from each other.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, John – and those who have already posted replies. Reading all this has made me thoughtful….
    I went to a South Yorkshire grammar school which became a comprehensive during my time there in the 70s. A few of us WERE spoken to about possible applications to Oxbridge, but it was presented quite negatively (“the school won’t be able to help you…”) and none of us gave it serious consideration. We discussed it as we walked away from the deputy head’s office and I remember we all felt we wouldn’t fit in – it would be full of snobby types and why would we want to go there?
    I’ve no regrets – I did an English degree at Manchester and loved my time there, but 15 years later, as Head of English, I supported students preparing for the Oxford Entrance Exam which existed at that time, and seeing how excited they were by the intellectual challenge did make me wonder whether I would have enjoyed that too.
    And then after teaching in four state schools I moved into the independent sector as a deputy, and then later to another independent school as a head. I’m glad John has such positive experience of independent/state sector partnership. I’ve been involved in this in a number of different ways and seen how everyone benefits – everyone contributes and learns.
    The pupils in the schools where I was a deputy and then a head weren’t all from wealthy families. Many received financial support to be there (a good number on full bursaries because parental income was so low) and there were others whose parents lived a very modest lifestyle in order to afford the fees. But they were, generally, confident – ‘confidence without arrogance’ was our focus. They did a lot of public speaking over the years, took part in a great number of extra-curricular activities which built a range of skills, including leadership skills, and believed they could achieve. If they had Oxbridge potential they were encouraged and supported – but they weren’t pushed into this.
    I’m aware of how much the independent sector has to learn from its state sector colleagues, for example re: the most dynamic teaching and learning, and new models of CPD. But there are experiences and insights they can contribute in return, if there’s the kind of receptivity John shows here.

  6. Social mobilty is about more than exams. We need to support socially mobile students by showing them that their background and earlier experiences have value and their challenging journey from what can feel like one world to another, enriches them too, rather than allowing them to feel that they need to reject their background to fit in. Schools have a vital role to play here if we are not to turn out outwardly successful people who never quite feel that they fit in anywhere.
    Some tell stories that are not unlike the “uprooted and anxious” scholarship boys described in Richard Hoggart’s classic “Uses of Literacy”. We should do better than that.

  7. It seems to me though that we are perpetuating ‘snobbery’ by allowing private schools to exist. In Finland they abolished private education so there was a more egalitarian approach. If you continue to have a two tier system, you will end up with a two tier society. We did have the opportunity to take the Oxbridge exam at my comprehensive in the 1980s and one of my year group went to Oxford. He hated it as he was looked down upon for coming from a Comprehensive and having a strong Yorkshire accent. Perhaps things have changed there now but you’re probably more likely to meet an Etonite there than a state school student.
    Oh, as for golf. I joined my local club when in my mid teens and I have never encountered such snobbery before or since!

  8. You will be heartened to know we regularly send Uckfield students to Oxbridge now and quite a lot of our students play golf!

      1. Dave Williams is still here and Pat doing PE supply from time to time – Jerry Gunn says “Hi” too.

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