So which will stop first, the rain, or the bad news about Banking or the frantic pace of speculative change in Education?
OK, for those that don’t like rhetorical questions, we can dispense with the first; as that fine upstanding man from the BBC said this evening on the radio, our weather seems to have got ‘stuck’. Stateside they have heat waves, pondside we get the jet stream delivering cold, wet and windy summers. This one has given us the wettest June since records began, an average 6 inches, so just as well South East Water still have a hosepipe ban on us in Maidenhead, then, because clearly we have still not yet had enough water. What upsets me most about hosepipe bans (when it is raining cats and dogs) is that the water companies can get away with leaking water mains, because no one can see the puddles from the burst pipes, because we are too busy wading through the flood waters.
Now I am one of the greatest fans of the British banking sector. It has looked after my money for 43 years, it has helped me gain a mortgage, enter the property market, run a business and find investments funds for the future. It is now doing so for my family, working as they do elsewhere in the UK, they too need a safe secure place to keep their earnings and debts. Moving up a notch, world banking has helped so many of us in the UK, drawing investments in etc. that UK plc would be dead in the water if we didn’t have it. Whilst the UK banks were going to the wall 4 years ago, we were all told then that European banks were so much safer because they had invested much less in derivatives and bundles of loan stock. ‘That’s all right then’, said the sages, because those banks had their money tied up in good old bricks and mortar. Now we read that those ‘bricks and mortar’ homes are the cheek by jowl, megalopolis by blocks of flats for sale from Ventimiglia in the north of Italy across to Sagres in Portugal. Rather more Sand and Tender than we would like, you might say. And this weekend we learn that the ‘good old boys’ were fixing it for their friends, so that the books would look better and reputations could be saved. Fat chance that now. Barclay’s Chief Exec Bob Diamond* wrote to his staff and I quote “We all know that these events are not representative of our culture, and it is my responsibility to get to the bottom of that and resolve it.” I wonder what culture he is thinking of then, that previously bundled up the derivative stuff, or fueled the disastrous subsequent property crashes elsewhere in Europe and indeed has left its scars deep in towns in the less affluent parts of the UK.
As for education, we have got to feel sorry for the poor men at the ministry, who can clearly have no idea what their Secretary of State is going to say next. From ‘Bring back O’level’s’ through ‘Grammar tests for primary pupils’ to ‘compulsory phonics’ tests for 6 year olds, the headlines extolling the benefits of yet more change roll out. Just about every vested battallion is up in arms at the fact that Mr Gove asks for professional advice and then ignores it, preferring instead to cherry picks from convenient ‘world research’ data, and place his personal beliefs above sound pedagogic theory. As one of his own advisors for the Primary review, Andrew Pollard commented last week “It is overly prescriptive in two ways. One is that it is extremely detailed, and the other is the emphasis on linearity – it implies that children learn ‘first this, then that’. Actually, people learn in a variety of different ways, and for that you need flexibility – for teachers to pick up on that and vary things accordingly”.
Michael Gove spoke recently at one of the day conferences hosted by Public Schools that litter this time of year, this one being Brighton College, Independent School of the Year 2012. You can read his speech here – http://goo.gl/2enra, and in some senses it is an educational advertisement of the highest order for our sector, because so many of our past pupils occupy seats of power and influence, in Government, in the Press and Media, on stage and screen, in the England cricket team and across the Olympic squads. Actually I have banged on about this for years, for without the independent sector, we would not have exam bodies, a military or judiciary, and that’s another side to the same story. For most who succeed in life, you have to learn to take risks, to learn to serve others first, to study beyond any reason for learning other than the joy itself.
Not a day goes by without news of another initiative. Today, it’s the forced study of English and Maths to 18 for everyone who ‘fails their GCSEs next summer’, I read on the BBC. Yet for many of us who run successful, yet diverse schools in the independent sector, this change management that goes from ‘back to the future’ to a new ‘funding fad’ to reward schools willing to toe the government line, makes no sense. It should surprise no-one that talent in its droves continues to emerge from our sector. Take a look at the simple news story running on the Independent Schools Association website – http://goo.gl/BLNrh – about the ISA National Festival of Sport, that brought together over 800 athletes from 32 schools across the country in Nottingham and Leicester this last weekend. Any school could go, there was no pre-selection of athletes, no prior selection of the fittest – for our school as for so many others, we took pupils who could run, jump, throw, kick and swim a bit and hoped they would enjoy a national festival in this Olympic year. For this to happen, teachers across the country had to give up months of time to plan, prepare and bring this to fruition, and for my school, it seems we came back with over 100 medals, including 3 major relay golds and 1 silver. And so many other schools will have gone back, not just with medals, but with memories and yet another stir of the creative and competitive pot. And please bear in mind, no such national festival event has been run for any other group of schools, state or independent in 2012 – how sad is that for a nation apparently that sought to inspire its young to leave the couch and take to the track!
One major reason for our sector’s success is its size. Not in terms of the percentage of the country educated (that’s only 7%), but because of the size of the institutions. Claires Court may be 1000 children strong, but we are organised into 6 working units. The average secondary Independent school is less than 400 in number, and those that are bigger, such as my nearest rival Eton College, organise their 300+ boys a year into much smaller house units with plenty of space for peer mentoring and vertical learning. And the point is that ‘we’ have done it so for years. That’s why every child pretty much who wants to find what they are good at can, not because they have to pass a phonics, grammar, English or maths test at any age, but because they are expected to excel in something. A second is because we really do develop them young enough to love competition, despite the possibility of failure. Later this week, boys in Year 7 and 8 conduct their separate Drama festivals, and there are prizes for all, from comic genius (unintentional) to best actor. The girls are going out under canvas and expeditioning to take risks and get wet, and the staff are too. The curriculum may have gone to ‘the Olympics’ , having run the world last week, we get to race robots against woodlice in science it seems, that’s physics taking on Biology by the way. But it’s not just fancy stuff, the History projects and English writing carries on, with teachers trusted to lead by example in the best way they know how.
Track record is all about developing trust, and our sectors’ previous looks pretty attractive just now. In harsh economic times, there will be indepedent schools that have borrowed too heavily, and news of Llandovery College’s inability to pay this month’s wages is just the latest in steady trickle of private school bad news stories. Yet even in trouble, parents will know that this Welsh school gave their children every possible chance in life to succeed, in a culture that was far more than force feeding 1950s spellings. I wish ill on no one, from bankers to politicians, but I do not appreciate those that feel it is easy to be clever in complex areas such as weather forecasting, banking or education. We all know how difficult it is to get the predictions for a dry spell right, and economics has got no easier, whether you cheat or not. In education, there is no simple fix, but so much evidence that what works is very visible and in our midst as I write.
Despite the rain, the cricket is going well thank you, with one of our 12 year olds, Kieran, bowling a double wicket maiden last week, and then in harness with another, Tom, helping win the Berkshire club U12 championship on Sunday. Semi-finals and finals in a day; some would say cruelty and beyond boys so young, others of course that without such challenge, you’ll never learn of what you are capable. I spent much of the weekend in the company of those for whom sport is perhaps less important than leadership and challenge, with 19 boys and girls on expedition on the Chilterns’ edge. And when you see the very real pleasure Laura got, from taking off her 15Kg rucksack off her 14 year old back after a day hiking up hill and down dale, I don’t doubt she will become a leader in the future. I’ll just keep her and her friends learning a little bit longer, about themselves and their capabilities above all. You can’t fail the Duke of Edinburgh award you see, just find you have to keep striving a little bit more to achieve it! And then you move up a level…
*Obviously Bob’s work was easy – he spotted he was to blame, so jumped before he was pushed (news Tuesday 3 July).