Good ideas: we should be religious in their pursuit and agnostic about their source

The pandemic has created a learning opportunity - the state and independent sector should learn from each other

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In 1976, Australia’s Olympic team returned from the Montreal Games without a single gold medal. A period of national mourning followed. Similarly, in 1996, when Great Britain returned from the Atlanta Games with only Pinsent and Redgrave victorious, something had to change.

What followed was an open-minded, blank canvass approach to root and branch reform. After Montreal, the Australian Olympic hierarchy scoured the globe, visiting successful sporting nations to see what was being done elsewhere and what could be learnt. That the East Germans may have been doping as much as they were training didn’t deter the Australians. No stone was left unturned. They left the moral judgements to one side and worked out later which measures they would borrow and which they would reject. 

The Australians adopted the more ethical methods of the Eastern Block and created the Australian Institute of Sport. They built state-of-the-art facilities, contracted athletes on a full-time basis, brought in the world’s most successful coaches and embarked on a highly scientific talent identification programme. We all know the results. 

After 1996, Great Britain established the National Lottery and started to pump millions into similar objectives. The first thing we did after Atlanta was visit Australia. A good idea is a good idea – even if it’s stolen from “the old enemy”. To borrow Franklin Roosevelt’s adage: “Find what works. Repeat.”

Our Olympic standing has improved steadily ever since. In 2012, we took our largest ever haul with 29 golds. At the Rio Games, only the USA finished above us in the final count. We proved that with enough will, know-how and investment, this country can achieve anything it sets its mind to.

In achieving such lofty heights, it was critical for both countries to dispense with assumptions, make no pre-judgments and be willing to seek best-practice wherever it could be found. Pride, reputation, established thinking and even ideology had to be put to one side in the pursuit of Olympic ambition. It was an approach characterised by an honest assessment of the problem and a source-blind commitment to the best solutions. 

We are not in a crisis yet, but many in the profession understand we need to do more

British education is, thankfully, nowhere near a moment of crisis. We have made great strides in the last two decades. What happens inside our classrooms has moved on dramatically. We have seen improvements by our own internal measures and on the international PISA rankings as well. But, as I talk to teachers, leaders and governors, I get a strong sense that, despite the recent progress, many in the profession feel we need to do more. And not in pursuit of international glory, but in service of all young people, whatever their background, and for the sake of the country we want to be. 

Recently, in The Times, Peter Hyman was a signatory to an open letter calling into question the value of GCSEs. Those who signed the letter are better-qualified than I to speak to the pressures and efficacy of our system of assessment. And the same critique was repeated there: that we need to do more – but not more of the same. This passage stood out:

“No credit is given to those who are skilled communicators, thoughtful team players, clever problem solvers or creative thinkers; in short the stuff that helps you thrive in life, and makes you invaluable to employers.”

So, the consensus seems to be that we need to focus far more on educating the whole child than we do right now. School21 is doing it. Big Education is calling for it. So too is the Society for Total Education in Wales. Big Change are championing pockets of innovation at home and abroad. Finland has built a globally-leading education system based on just this approach. There is no doubt we too should be scouring the globe and identifying international examples where such reform has happened at scale. But what if there might be a few ideas we can pinch that are a little closer to home?

I do recognise that the existence of independent schools helps to maintain social inequalities, but equally, I am not blind to many of the things they do really well

I didn’t go to private school and I have no intention of sending my kids to one. But I did work in one in the early part of my career and many of my former colleagues and close friends still do. I chose to leave the sector because I wanted to work with kids who start life with less. 

I do recognise that the existence of independent schools helps to maintain social inequalities, but equally, I am not blind to many of the things they do really well. I can’t knock most of their methods and I am impressed by the amount of resources they are able to deploy. I understand that, for many state school teachers, private education is a foreign and suspicious land. Equally, I know from personal experience that independent schools need to maintain their exclusivity in order to survive.  

I understand both positions, but I do not share them.

Needless to say, such quasi-tribalism is not ubiquitous across either sector but, in an age of division, we cannot have too many voices calling for the merits of collaboration. 

Independent schools, with money to spend and freedom to innovate, have been working for 180 years on what happens outside the classroom

There is little to no difference between state and independent schools in terms of the quality of teaching. But, with the exception of pockets of great work on shoestring budgets, the real gap lies in what happens inside schools, outside the classroom. Independent schools, with money to spend and freedom to innovate, have been working for 180 years on what happens beyond the curriculum. Unencumbered by league tables and shifting diktats, yet furnished with per-head budgets treble that of the state sector, they have come up with some effective ideas – some of which are worth looking at. 

The co-curricular offer in public schools is a carefully manufactured environment which is successful on its own terms: that being the dispersal of self-doubt in its young people and the life opportunities which result. But there is much know-how coming from the state sector too. Aside from a growing number of successful co-curricular programmes, state sector educators are daily exposed to the societal challenges from which the independent sector is largely insulated. 

And herein lies the key problem: at a political level, it is too often those who were privately educated who end up making decisions which affect those who aren’t. There have been a few notable exceptions, but in recent history, most governments have not been sufficiently inclined to make the necessary reforms and investment.

For all the confidence a private education provides, there is little evidence of it supplying a countervailing dose of hubris. Too often we see privately-educated ministers labouring under the misconception that their personal successes are a result of innate traits and abilities. The self-belief is enviable. The self-deception is not. This marriage of unshakeable confidence and narrow life experience has, for decades, proven to be sub-optimal in terms of policy-making. This is not to say that a surfeit of sport, drama, music and debating inevitably leads to a self-serving myopia; it’s just that an overdevelopment of belief, ambition and self-preservation can often lead to a career in politics. Over time, that has tended to not work out too well for those children in most need. Until Marcus Rashford gets involved. 

In the vast majority of cases, however, an education rich in co-curricular activities produces committed, confident, dynamic and successful human beings. But, just like 1976, when Australia adopted the sports science and not the doping, the challenge for us is to select good ideas and make them meet our values. No longer can character development be an optional afterthought. Education must be about something larger and more ambitious. The curriculum should soon become just one strand of what a school delivers. We need to teach self-regulation without sacrificing compassion, imbue confidence without it morphing into arrogance, and render ambition without the distortion of entitlement. If our poorest children can be invested with these qualities, they can become the future decision-makers their communities need. It is up to us to break the chain.

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