It’s all about reading…

Following my first blog about the Learning Frontiers event I attended in Shoreditch, in which I was able to make a contribution ( -69min28secs onwards), I have a little more to add. When I thrust forward into headship, I had the courage of a lion and the pride to go with that. 30 years on, I have learned that school leadership is a humbling profession, and above all to be successful you need to have the blinkers off, and gather every idea possible to ensure your school remains on top of its game.
The best schools (or should I say the best school leaders) don’t waste a moment disparaging their peers, locally or nationally, and it has been the most remarkable feature of organised Independent education in England that we have pleaded with government for ever (particularly since the introduction of league tables) to consign school comparisons to the bin. Internationally though, our country’s performance is compared against the rest, through the OECD PISA survey, which by the way rates the UK Independent schools grouping as the best providers in the world. Talking about success in Nations, OECD report that “the share of top performers – those students who attain reading proficiency level 5 or 6 in reading – increased in Japan, Korea and the partner economy Hong Kong-china such that these countries now have the largest proportions of high-achieving students among the countries participating in the 2009 assessment”. Rather than complain about that independent judgement (be that on best schools or best countries), allow for a moment that OECD’s reasoning might be true. Is there a comparative model of like provision against which we could test that judgement?
We are in the season of University rankings, and the latest to appear is the THES list of the best Universities in the World by reputation. Only academics who had published more than 50 research papers and had worked in universities for more than 16 years were asked to take part in the survey, so we are looking at a pretty privileged electorate. The answers reveal that the UK as a nation sits second only to the States in terms of numbers in the top 100 (45 plays 12), with Japan a distant third (5). The point about such tables is that the criteria often change, but the overall outcomes don’t., so well done Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, University College, LSE and Edinburgh for making the top 50 as well.
The absence of great Universities such as Durham, Brimingham, York is perhaps as inexplicable as the presence of Sheffield in the reputation list, but here’s the broader picture. It’s not just having great Universities in the top 10, top 50, top 200 that’s the point, it is that we have all of our Universities striving to be the best, and in what ever myriad of ways they can find, encouraged of course and stimulated by the outstanding examples of those Universities leading the way. The best University for Engineering, for Town Planning, for Hospitality management or for great arts is going to be a different name, and the very independence of our Universities means that we have built excellence through diversity, and as a nation we should be deeply proud of just how egalitarian (in comparison with the States, Japan or France for example) entry into our higher education system is.
The UK Independent Schools Council group is not made up of schools that select their intake from the privileged elite. I can say this with certainty because the greater volume by school numbers of our sector accommodates those in the age range 5 to 14, engaged in working with children of all abilities, with their results unannounced to any authority or any table anywhere, encompassing over twelve hundred schools. Less than half that number even get close to educating 16 year olds, let alone an A level cohort. Of course all of our leading Independent schools by academic reputation do select for their A level cohort, and as a body of school educating at this level, we represent 7% of the country educating 25% of the nation at A level getting 50+% of the top grades. But that’s not to say that all of our Sixth forms are selective, and some like mine actually have a balanced mission, educating for excellence sure, but also offering pupils the chance to pursue A levels where other centres (state and independent) won’t permit.
I don’t think any of us would wish to argue that in order to achieve great things, you have to have centres of excellence. We know that the outstanding outcomes from the Royal Ballet School, Chetham’s School of Music or the Manchester United Football academy are without parallel. The various Cathedral choir schools are equally phenomenal, as are the schools for full-time education in the performing Arts. Almost all in these categories I could mention are truly independent schools, but whether they receive state funding or not depends entirely upon the legacy by which they were created. In the last decade, again irrespective of state or independent funding, we have seen a growth in understanding on how to achieve excellence, and I don’t doubt that we’ll see Oscars and International awards & caps going to alumni from all school backgrounds.
But none of the above is about the engagement of all of the pupils, or at least most of them anyway. I run a school of 1000 pupils in which every one must be treated as special because that’s my brief, funded as I am by their parents. Our nursery is as free the nursery funding allows, with up to 100 children making their first educational steps in life, and no-one rails at us at this stage about operating a system to nurture the privileged elite. Nevertheless, the outcomes for those that stay all the way through Claires Court are extraordinarily good, both in terms of academy, in specialism, in roundedness and in common sense. I don’t think for a moment that other centres are not capable of excellence, but I do have a phenomenal confidence from the data we generate that the longer pupils are in our school, the better the outcomes for them. As one recent ex-pat correspondent writes about her son’s current Sixth Form education in a centre of excellence abroad “The personal touches are what makes (CCS) so special, the Headmaster here would never know each child’s name, the extra opportunities you offer, like the public speaking etc. are invaluable to everyone whatever their abilities. Your school seeks to bring out the best in everyone and that can only be a good thing.”
I understand that school visionaries such as Toby Young are capable of selling their vision on a one horse pony trick such as Latin. In making clear why Acton and Hammersmith needs a new free school, and one that includes an ancient language he said “to deny children an education in the classics means they are never on the same footing as their independent school peers” or some such comment, and at his new free school, all will study Latin to age 14. Sure my school offers Latin, teaching it from Year 5, but from Year 7 it’s an option and by Year 9 a minority interest group, and I certainly understand why our own pupils move out into more vocational subjects such as Business Studies, Drama and Technology (be that Design, Food or Music).
What all centres of excellence must do is try harder to engage all learners, or at least most of them most of the time, and I think many in the Shoreditch audience feared that Mr Young’s new school will find life a bit bouncy in Year 9 if all (irrespective of academic ability or persuasion) are required to study Latin still as a compulsory part of the curriculum. What Katherine Birbalsingh saw from her prism of deputy headship (in a school that sacked her and which now has been sacked itself, closing at the end of the summer term), is similar to that we dear viewers can see watching Jamie Oliver’s dream school on Channel 4, namely this; engaging many young people today is not done by being brilliant as a writer, actor, publicist or musician. Great teaching is an extraordinary talent, developed over a number of years and given to people who have worked at it, not born with it. For far too long, we have concentrated on things we can measure in education, the examination results for pupils, and not sufficiently on the qualities that make for great learning environments. Jamie’s dream pupils are a school’s worst nightmares, boys and girls who simply won’t shut up, who feel they have a divine right to chat, disrupt, ignore and cavort, irrespective of time and place. This last Wednesday’s episode in a London theatre, where they were to watch their teacher, Simon Callow perform, they managed to upset the rest of the audience with their lack of respect or even empathy with the production itsefl!.  This is sadly all too familiar a sight for those of us who go to ‘school’ performances, where whole year groups from different centres seem to vie with each other to outrage and disrupt.
During my opportunity to speak at the Learningwithoutfrontiers conference, I made a bold statement that the Education profession does actually know what works to raise achievement, and for a summary of some readable recent research on this, do read the OECD digest from the 2009 survey ( There are some pretty clear words in its final conclusion, which are “enjoyment of reading tends to have deteriorated, especially among boys, signalling the challenge for schools to engage students in reading activities that 15-year-olds find relevant and interesting”. Academic achievement in schools rises when children engage in reading activities, period. So whatever interested parties in education might wish (students, parents or teachers), there is no substitute for reading, though there might be for the medium of transmission, it’s ok to repalce the book with a screen. The PISA report ends “Overall, aspects of classroom discipline have also improved. thus there is no evidence to justify the notion that students are becoming progressively more disengaged from school”. So it won’t surprise you that I really do believe that reading is of paramount importance, whatever the ability of the learner, and that we’ll continue to invest in Libraries and events such as World Book day to celebrate reading. And it won’t surprise you to know that the most successful Universities in the World, be they Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Tokyo, Oxford et al, also still ask their students to ‘read’ for a degree.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to It’s all about reading…

  1. anonalum says:

    “The UK Independent Schools Council group is not made up of schools that select their intake from the privileged elite.” Although is it impossible to assign a sense of elitism to a 10 year old boy in the way the writer infers, I suggest the writter reasess the concept of priveldge. Independent schools, no matter how many scholarships or bursaries are awarded for whatever reasons, cannot ignore the basic consequences and princples behind market driven econmics, an econmics that sustains and maintains their independence. Maybe if independent schools were to removes their fees altogether then the sense of elitism and priveldge might subside, although I find this very hard to believe. Do not trick yourself Mr Writer, you are along way away from the Ignorant School Master.

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