The Past feeds the Present

I went to a private school from the age of 11 until I was 18. It was an elitist, high-performing boys school. I remember sitting the entrance exam, driving up to the school with my friend Simon, testing each other on capital cities of countries around the world. This didn’t come up in the exam, but we knew a lot of them. I got a bursary to attend the school; every year my academic performance was monitored to make sure I was still eligible to receive this money. If I hadn’t met the standard, my parents could no longer have afforded to send me.

Looking back on this now with adult eyes, that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a child, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. In reality, I had no concept of the financial and political decisions behind my education. I went to school. I worked hard. I made friends. I did well. That was all.  However, the decision even to send me for the entrance exam resonates through my life to this day and has guided every step of my career.

In the sixth form I applied to read English at New College, Oxford. The system is different now, but back then Oxford set its own entrance exams which you would sit in your school. If you passed those, you were invited for interview, and if you passed that you were given a nominal offer (two E grades, in my case) for the purposes of UCAS. I was put in a special class to coach me for the entrance exam, given mock-interview practice and guidance from Oxbridge graduates on the staff as the tried-and-tested programme at my school picked me up. Again, even as a 17-year-old, I didn’t question this. My school was the only secondary school I had ever known; I naively had no idea that other schools were any different. I got in.

The formative moments came after Oxford as I studied for my PGCE at Nottingham University. The highly astute and perceptive tutor Chris Hall (to whom I owe an enormous debt) recognised that sheltered naivety in me, and sent me for my teaching practice to a school in the north of Nottinghamshire in a very deprived area, where there was no school uniform, where teachers were called by their first names, and where open-plan classroom spaces merged into one another. I think she thought that it would make me or break me. It made me.

I was appointed at Sutton Centre (now an Academy with blazers) as an NQT after my teaching practice and spent three years in the amazing English and Drama department there. The experience shaped my adult self. I know this is supposed to happen at university, but Oxford hadn’t provided that for me. I knew a lot about Jane Austen and even more about Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, but I had no idea how people really lived in the real world. Suddenly, I was in a properly comprehensive school for the first time in my life – and I loved it.

During this time, between the ages of 21 and 24, I was forced to reassess my past. I would often conceal the fact that I was an Oxford graduate, as it generated prejudices in people I met which caused me to be ashamed of what I thought were unfair advantages in my own background. I went through a period of resentment about my own education, which boiled down to this – I like to think that I got into Oxford on merit. That I would have got in anyway, no matter which school I had gone to. But I would never know if this was true.

If I’m honest, I still haven’t resolved this, although am no longer ashamed of admitting where I went to school or university (hence this post!). But what coalesced in me during that formative period from my PGCE to my first promotion was a bedrock philosophy for my career. This philosophy is simple: that no person should have an unfair advantage through education because of the amount of money their family has.

What I realised in Sutton was that state schools provide an education that private schools cannot – a human education which puts children from all backgrounds into one community, together. My education did not do this – I didn’t learn much about the real world until I was in my twenties. And some contemporaries of mine from school and university, not to mention some government ministers, never learn what it’s like to live a different sort of life or come from a different sort of background. They live their lives in a comfortable, homogenous bubble which corrodes the social fabric of our country.

This realisation continues to push me every day to provide a free state education to every pupil for whom I am responsible which is of the highest quality. I want state schools so good that parents, if they are choosing between state and private, would choose the state. I want state schools so good that private schools go out of business and end that poisonous division in our society which leads good parents like mine to think that they can buy increased chances of success for their children.

I know that I won’t change the world. But I will chip away at my little piece of it, making what difference I can.

22 thoughts on “The Past feeds the Present

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  3. Chris: I find this very interesting and hope we get to meet at some stage as I’d really like to talk it through with you. I went to a state comprehensive, didn’t apply for Oxbridge as I thought I wouldn’t fit in there, taught in four state schools and two independents which really opened my eyes to the similarities and differences between (and advantages and disadvantages of) the sectors. Would really enjoy a discussion with you about this!

  4. I come to London from time to time for work so will let you know when I’m there and perhaps we can meet for coffee and a chat?

  5. I wish I could agree that state education is better. I would feel much happier if I could think that.

    As a parent paying extortionate London housing costs and not having an option to educate my child privately I cannot disagree more.

    I was privately educated for most of my life and it thought it me the value of hard work as my parents and everyone else’s parents worked incredibly hard to provide this, hardly any were that wealthy and hardly any children didn’t have a ‘reality check’. This was our of the UK though as I am not British.

    My husband and I work incredibly hard but due to the ludicrous cost of private housing our child is ‘stuck’ in a central London state school which is considered a high-achieving school in the league tables. Although I can’t fault the teachers, I think that my child would be a million times better off in an independent school.

    Firstly, she will be surrounded by children of parents who work and who would most likely pass on a strong work ethic onto their children. At our current school hardly any parents work and our child is constantly asking why we have to.

    Also, the school has to deal with the needs of the children neglected by their parents, who are too busy watching TV. Which in turn leaves very few resources left to tend to the needs of our profoundly gifted child. They do what they can and we try to support at home but there is no doubt in
    my mind that my child would be learning an awful lot more in an independent school. And could get much further in life.
    I spend every spare mInute researching education topics trying to figure out how to bridge gaps at the moment and what we will do when we need a secondary school and the situation is even more dire.

    A friend had her daughter at our local secondary state school, who happens to be a highly desirable school and very hard yo get into. After 6 months at the school they decided to move back to the US after 5 years in London because her 11 daughter kept coming home telling stories of how her friends were planning their teenage pregnancies already in order to get a council flat by their early 20’s. This is a very expensive area and the ‘pregnancy to tenancy’ planning starts early. It took me months to process that this was what 11 olds could contemplate.

    These social problems are the reasons why parents in our area would opt to go private if at all possible. Because the social issues distract the teachers and pupils.

    It was mentioned that privately educated children didn’t know the ‘real world’ before their 20’s.

    My child however knew at 5 that in order to get another bedroom in your council flat you need another child. Consequently, quickly worked out that we couldn’t have a sibling because we were not council and we cannot afford another child or another bedroom. Soon, the questions spiralled to subjects that are way beyond of what a child needs to be thinking about.

    If you ask me, this is way too much real life for my liking.

    • Thank you so much for your comment – you sound like a fantastic parent, first of all! I’m no naive enough to pretend there aren’t profound social and systemic problems at large, and you highlight some of them really eloquently and movingly. I also recognise that there is only so much that schools can do in these circumstances and you are right to recognise this also. In your circumstances a private school would provide a “better” experience because it would socially select a peer group whose parents all work and who had (hopefully) never heard the phrase “pregnancy to tenancy”, but that peer group would not represent the social reality of the area of London where you live. I can only speak from personal experience in this matter: this was exactly the choice my parents faced and they chose private. As an adult, I wish they’d made a different choice for me. But there are no easy – and certainly no “right” – answers in this very, very difficult landscape.

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  9. Great blog post: I admire your candour and sincerity. I’ve taught in state and private (and was educated in a state school). For me, a major distinction between state and private is not the quality of teaching or the resources; it is the simple fact that students who disrupt learning in private schools have a greater chance of losing their place. I’m not suggesting that the private pupil is ruled by this fear, but when you experience disruption in a state school (I remember my ‘acquaintance’ Terry lobbing conkers at our French teacher, and, bizarrely, driving his desk up and down the aisle of the class) and see the offenders return day after day with no meaningful sanction, well, where do you go from there? I share your concerns about social division, but we need to address two very difficult questions: why do we not have a shared value of education across the whole of our society, and how can we create one? If we solve that problem, we can begin to attract more affluent social groups into state education.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I can’t take issue with anything you say here – completely agree with it. Though I remember some horrifically arrogant and riotously out-of-control behaviour from my independent schooling too, much worse than anything I’ve experienced in my teaching career in the state sector, there’s no doubt that the shared value of education is a real crux point.
      Thanks again.

  10. Dear Chris, thank you for your fascinating article. I had a similar upbringing – I was very privileged to have gone to one of the top independent schools in the country, and was given tuition for the Oxford entrance exam so that I, too, was given a two E offer (to study maths, however!). Looking back, I realise how much my school helped me to achieve this and many other dreams, such as writing a piece of music and hearing the school orchestra play it for me there and then. I was very lucky. Now I am a mother of three and my instinct is to want the same for my children, but the school fees are so tremendously high (times three) and not only that but it seems virtually impossible for children to get into these independent schools, certainly in the London area. Our kids are at a fantastic local state primary, but it won’t help them to get through the 11+ exam. Is it worth the money but also the worry to get them into a secondary independent? But for us, the state alternatives are not great in our area…. and are also huge!! I am very muddled.

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  13. Chris, What a great article, thanks for your honesty, you sound a fantastic teacher. I agree, with the right support, almost anyone can achieve great academic results with motivation and effort. However, I also don’t think parents should feel guilty about wanting private education, all circumstances are different. If it helps, for parents desperate for advice on private schools and scholarships, I’ve written a free cheat sheet guide Best wishes for 2017! Claire

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