Here we go again – United Kingdom to the Ballot Box – 12 December 2019

The first half of the Autumn Term at Claires Court has been all about settling in the new boys and girls, establishing more broadly for all what the objectives for the year are to be and then progress with the business of ensuring our school community gets on with its learning , the stretch of acquiring new skills, developing talents, rising to the many challenges that form part of the modern education landscape, whilst… recovering from the initial failure of our planning applications for a new campus whilst… buckling up our seatbelts, because of course UK PLC was due to leave Europe on the 31 October 2019.

Fair do’s, when all said and done, our 2 week half-term fits our educational ecosystem quite well. The school days are long, the diverse activities and commitments take their toll, and it’s nice to have a decent length of time in which to run a wide range of educational trips and give all those taking part a breather too. Blow me down, whilst school’s out, the Prime Minister has decided that ‘Divorce’ can wait a while longer; he’s going to the British public to seek a full mandate for his many and varied policies beyond Brexit. Well good luck to Boris, and he may very will swing the country behind his message, but I for one can’t really see past the ‘Leaving Europe’ bit, because in that major political decision lies the relative affluence of our country for the next 5 years or so.

Inevitably I spend almost all my working time with and around young people and their teachers. What’s been so frustrating for us all over the past 3 years is that whilst the political landscape has been in gridlock over the ‘Deal/No deal’ debate, the wider real world has been waking up to a range of regional and world wide calamities the like of which we have not seen before in my lifetime. If we can just take the UK-wide struggle we are having to ensure we have effective business, welfare, care and community structures which have had to face the brunt of austerity cuts and privatisations, it seems ludicrous for the country’s leadership to be ‘fiddling’ whilst the ‘house burns down’. Politically I have always been a radical liberal, enjoying that freedom to make my own choices because I have been able to rely on the wider society to be well ordered and serving of the public. Our public servants, be they teachers, medics, the police, local and government service or the armed forces can only work well if the funds and resources are there, and they have clearly diminished beyond the point of profit/loss.

It’s difficult to be anything other than horrified by the emerging outcomes from the Grenfell enquiry and all that means for all the other tower blocks in the land clad in similar clothing, and for the fire and emergency services that simply couldn’t cope that day. In terms of law and order, cutting so deep into the Police service has meant that personal, violent crime is more obviously affecting the young and crime more broadly in terms of trafficking people or drugs lights up our newspapers far too frequently. More broadly, cutting back on legal aid has permitted a dramatic erosion of civil liberties and opportunities to make challenge, with justice per se becoming the preserve of the rich or its lack becoming the friend of the criminal. The sight of politicians visiting schools and hospitals has always been seen as a win-win photo opportunity for the political candidates canvassing for our vote; not so any more, with so many existing institutions clearly starved of the funds they need to keep their bricks, mortar and softer services in good repair. It’s no surprise to see the professionals, patients and parents giving new meaning to the words ‘having a go’ on their celebrity guests for the hour or so.

Pulling out the focus further onto the international landscape, and it’s equally clear that the world is crying out and in pain. From the many and varied regional conflicts and aggressions to the whole climate change phenomenon, humanity seems hell bent on its own destruction, and there probably isn’t anything we can do about it personally. And right on cue, the latest BBC BioPic, ‘Seven worlds, One Planet’ has started on TV to remind us all how small we actually are compared with Mother Earth, but nevertheless our impact as a species has been to the utter detriment of all the others. TV shows, as with all data-streams are shown to entertain and inform, and in Sir David Attenborough as broadcaster, we all feel we have a narrator with integrity, who will ‘tell it right’ and guide us to behave in a less harmful way to the environment in which we live. Long live this national treasure!

Integrity is something that seems to have been in as short supply as money as the various governments of the past 10 years have sought to steer us as a nation through the choppy economic landscape brought about by the banking crash of 2007/8. Promises seem easier to make and harder to keep than ever, be they cheap ones such as ‘We are leaving on the 31st’ or big number ones such as ‘We send £350 million to EU a week, let’s fund our NHS instead’. Leadership seems to me to so much more than just winning an election, and yet this is exactly what we are faced with in 6 weeks time. We are required to choose a party member to represent our interests in Parliament; in making that cross on the ballot box, we then keep our fingers crossed too that the party they stand for will win sufficient seats to be the leading party in the House of Commons and thus become the governing party of the country.

Whatever my politics, I am a democrat, so I will indeed trust in the ballot box and mark my card accordingly. If Theresa May, our local MP, had won the last Brexit round in March, then I have no doubt I would have been free to vote on all the other policy stand points I have itemised above, and the political parties would have been presenting a balanced beauty parade in my view. Sadly Brexit still looms largest, and it will dominate. I’d clearly love to see it swept from the table in one blow, so that we could indeed use the otherwise-to-be-wasted cash on supporting the obvious spending increase on public services to come, whoever we elect. If the young people I work with are to be listened to, they really want the Extinction Rebellion to grow, that global environmental movement which aims to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse.

From my time at university where I studied the Biological sciences and ‘discovered’ Ecology, I’ve understood the very careful balance that humanity needs to walk to keep its impact in check. We genuinely have all those balancing mechanisms in play now, and the rest of the world remains full of admiration for our country’s way of working. Whilst we can’t see it because of the ‘fog of political war’, the institutions that make our country great are all still there, and genuinely just need a spell of true leadership to permit them all to be nourished back to good health. Perhaps a slight tweak on our school values will indeed help us all with how we place our vote, for if we can fill parliament with 650 members who abide by these, whatever their politics, our government will thrive:

” Responsibility for ourselves, Respect for others (who may have different views and needs), Loyalty to our country (above party) and Integrity above all (we promise not to lie)”.

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In our shared backyard…

Claires Court’s senior school prize giving was held on Thursday, our annual celebration of the last academic year’s main achievements, scholastic, social, spiritual, sporting and service. If you’d like to watch the event, you can see that here on the school’s YouTube channel – – fyi, our Principal guest was Dr Peter Woodroffe, former pupil and now Deputy CEO of the Independent Schools Association (ISA).

Given our long term commitment to RBWM, we invite all the leaders of the local community with whom we engage, including all of our elected council members and important council employees. Our local ‘relations’ so to speak stretch across the sports clubs we partner with, such as Maidenhead Rowing club and Phoenix Rugby Club, major social welfare organisations such as Lions and Rotary, through to the Chamber of Commerce and local newspaper editors. It was with great pleasure we welcomed Simon Dudley, just recently stepped down as leader of the council and as our local member for Riverside, in which the Senior Boys school sits. We’ll be having a by-election soon for his replacement, and it will be interesting to see who get’s elected in his place. I copy below Simon Dudley’s tweet from the event, great affirmation from a person of such influence.

Cllr Dudley’s support for our own school’s planning application to consolidate onto one site did us little good it seems, with so many of the local planning counsellors speaking against our proposals. More broadly, it’s fair to say the borough’s entire planning management seems in complete disarray, what with RBWM Planning manager Jeni Jackson now resigning and the Mayor calling an extraordinary general meeting of the RBWM Council for 23 October, at which the Borough Local Plan BLP) submitted version will be reopened or as likely, withdrawn.

The problem with the BLP is that it seems it was submitted prematurely, before so much of the detailed consultations and evidence gathering had been completed. As one example of many, the BLP included a plot of open green belt land near our Junior school, just the other side of the Railway bridge on Cannon Lane, known as plot HA22, despite the fact that it sits as a ‘bale-out’ area for planes taking off from White Waltham aerodrome! In her most recent letter to the National Inspector of the RBWM BLPsv, Louise Phillips. Ms jackson writes “Further thought has been given to the proposed allocation of the site for housing in the light of the agreed safeguarding position with the Airfield. The Council intends to consult on a recommended proposed change to remove this as a housing site allocation from the Borough Local Plan. This would resolve the conflict with the Neighbourhood Plan designation as Local Green Space and respond to the Regulation 20 representation from the owners and operators of the Airfield”.

The political landscape of Maidenhead has been completely redrawn by the emergence of ‘The Borough First’ party, formed from previously affiliated councillors of the Conservative party, angry at the railroading through of the BLP without sufficient local discussion. One major iconic piece of land, that of Maidenhead Golf club, has been included, the proposal including the building of 2000 houses and a secondary school on the 150 acres of mature woodland, with views that stretch across the Thames Valley to Windsor Castle. With the local council completely redrawn, it will be fascinating to see how what the new shape of Maidenhead will look like in 2020.

As this is our shared back yard with Maidenhead, here our my thoughts on the adjustments needed, both to the wider Borough plan, to include the missing strategic infrastructure Mrs Phillips has recognised are absent from the BLP, as well as our own movement to a one site solution for the school. For Maidenhead to hit its required housing solution by 2033, some 13,000 houses must be built. Whilst local planning continues to suggest it only has to find 7000 dwellings/houses in the remaining 10 years, in reality it is so far behind in the release of new housing that actually double those numbers are needed. Moreover, as it has planned none of the additional infrastructure required, it’s hasn’t yet placed a new sewage plant nor roadways to serve the new housing estates. One of the unique features of the plan is that it envisages half the housing load being built in our existing gardens, and that for half the other half, the flood plain will serve as a suitable place to build. The latter has the Environment agency ‘frothing’ so to speak, for with the change in our weather climate, when the ‘wets’ come they’ll be coming in typhoons, so using higher land out of the flood plain is their alternative solution for RBWM.

For our town, with the high ground to the west and north west in the ‘green belt’, the solution can only be to reopen the consultation on its usage, and the Mayor has already suggested that has to happen, by calling an extraordinary meeting of the Brough council for Wednesday 23 October. The major additional road infrastructure needed to help carry the load of the North-South traffic as it passes around Maidenhead are additional roads to the Braywick Road (A308), running from the A404 at Bisham south through the town to Bray and Windsor. The obvious solution is to upgrade the B3024 and adjacent Drift Road which run parallel to the A308, around the south west of Holyport from Oakley Green and Ascot through to White Waltham and Twyford. The final link from White Waltham to the A4 would be completed by adopting the road along the edge of the aerodrome, connecting it the major road over the railway at Westacott Way, before joining the A4 at Maidenhead Thicket. Whether national and local government will find the funds for that relief road improvement yet is for others to decide, but for sure, until that happens, the pressure on the local roads around Woodlands Park, Holyport, Bray and Maidenhead by the Railway station cannot be relieved.

As for the school, inside that great geographical arc around Maidenhead I have described by way of road infrastructures, the land involved has only 4 ‘owners’, RBWM, the National Trust, the Copas Family (Farms) and the Prior family (Summerleaze gravel), apart from that which we own, 60 acres on Cannon Lane. Given the ‘locked-in’ nature of the other land, the only destination that we can target is our edge of settlement-land where Claires Court Junior Boys sits. The compelling ‘very special circumstances’ case remains, and it needs to be heard fully, either through re-application to the RBWM Borough wide planning committee or by appeal to the Secretary of State. You can read that case here – link – and our closing letter to RBWM planning here. Please do give me direct feedback if you wish on these ideas, for Claires Court is a major education provider and employer in our own back yard, and we have every intention of serving Maidenhead for generations to come.

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Inspired anew – how adversity brings out the best in us!

Followers of Claires Court school and its enthusiasm to develop a new campus for its pupils, staff and families will know by now that the RBWM planning committee on Wednesday night (28.8.2019) rejected our enabling applications for the school, our new playing fields with our partner Maidenhead Hockey club, together with the housing that would in part fund the new development.

It’s probably true that most planning applications of this nature are refused at this hurdle; for ‘us’ applicants who feel (as we do) that ours has ‘great weight’, we have the rights to make appeal against this decision to the national inspectorate. Pleasingly in principle, we may proceed to the next stage, for which there is no additional fee. Since wednesday, the ‘team’ is considering its various options, of course, and will take steps accordingly.

My brother Hugh, Dave Taylor from the Hockey club, Andy Black from PRP (our planning advisor) and Elkie Russell (Berkeley Homes) spoke with passion and focus; despite the very short time we had available (Dave and I had to share 180 seconds on our playing field proposals for example), all of our supporting speakers gave of their absolute best, and I am deeply proud that we were able to present our case so coherently.

Two other supporters deserve especial mention this morning, those being Charlie Stay and Gabby Lindley. Charlie had agreed to speak to committee on her experiences as a student with us; during the day, whilst working in our summer camp she ‘lost’ her voice, so her good friend Gabby stood in on the evening with 5 minutes notice and gave her speech for her. I print below Charlie’s speech (the 1 minute version), for wider audience review:

My name is Charlie Stay, and I have just completed my degree at Reading University, gaining a 2/1 in English Literature. 

I entered a local secondary school in Year 7 in 2007; I have special educational needs, now identified as Dyslexia, that were not recognised and a growing health issue of anxiety, leading to school refusal. My father was a trooper in the Household cavalry, serving in Bosnia and Afghanistan, my mother a nursery teacher; my parents no longer recognised my 12 year old self as their daughter and felt they had no option other than to find a school in which my learning needs could be identified and met, and I joined Claires Court into Year 8 in September 2008.

The school’s whole provision enabled me to flourish academically, because they recognised my learning needs and met them. I grew in confidence, socially because I loved taking part in the arts, dance, dama, sport and many other extra curricular activities the school offers. My peer group of girls did just as well, and now include Olympians, GB Hockey players, fellow graduates from Uni and through my life in the Sixth Form I have made many lifelong friends, boys and girls.  

The school is an amazing place, with its inclusive ethos of providing for special needs children and weaving them into every element of school life, I felt then as I do now, that my learning is different not difficult; my strengths as a graduate lie not just in writing and the analysis of literature, but also in the ability to understand end create in film and media, key requirements in the new economies in which UK PLC leads the world. 

I urge members to consider my story, one so similar to many others within Claires Court, a school that utterly deserves to modernise its facilities and bring the boys and girls together onto one campus, thus securing its long term future.

Watchers on the big screen upstairs saw that when Gabby delivered these words last night, they report that for the first time the panel members paid full attention to our case, and it was nice for her to receive such positive mention from councillors at the time, even though they utterly disagreed with our proposition shortly thereafter. Well done Gabby and Charlie indeed.

I am so proud of my teaching staff and of the pupils who have benefited so positively whilst in our case and subsequently whilst at Uni and/or work. If failing at this hurdle was going to daunt me, Charlie’s spoken words by Gabby inspired me instead. School returns from Monday, and the phony war of planning argument will be replaced by the challenge once more of running and working in an outstanding school alongside so many amazing people, young and old alike.

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Interesting times in the RBWM Planning office…

They have been at this since 2013, and despite the RBWM planners ‘ protestations that the draft Borough Local Plan submitted version is the working solution, national planning inspector, many local pressure groups and neighbouring local authorities have begged to differ. And yesterday we learned the Mayor has called this Extraordinary full council meeting for the 23 October to restart the consultation process…

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Claires Court, the Equality act and our new campus…

Since the passing by parliament of the Equality Act in 2010, society in general, and education in particular has had to adjust its steering more than somewhat. Here’s the starter for 10 from the Government’s own website:

The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. It replaced previous anti-discrimination laws with a single Act, making the law easier to understand and strengthening protection in some situations. It sets out the different ways in which it’s unlawful to treat someone. Find out more about who is protected from discrimination, the types of discrimination under the law and what action you can take if you feel you’ve been unfairly discriminated against.

The act came into service in 2011, and had an immediate impact within education: It has three main elements; in carrying out their functions, public bodies are required to have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate discrimination and other conduct that is prohibited by the Act,
  • advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it,
  • foster good relations across all characteristics – between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.

There is so much more that I could write here, but in reality, when the the Court of Appeal in October 2017 held that complete segregation of girls and boys in a mixed-sex school is discriminatory on grounds of sex, per se the separation by gender caused detriment. Most of the diamond* schools in the country (circa 20) share the same campus and during breaktimes etc. the girls and boys can socially interact. In lessons and during other times of segregation, whilst the genders may be separated, at least the facilities are identical, so no discrimination through provision arises.

Claires Court was a boys’ school when in 1993 it acquired the Girls’ school, and saved the latter from closure. 26 years later, both boys and girls’sections are thriving, but the demand for girls places is circa 50% of boys because there are simply so many other independent girls schools around sharing the same catchment area. The school has carefully planned over the years how to ‘balance’ the differences in provision, and as the latest GCSE results indicate, there is little to separate the boys from the girls – both circa 90% 5 or more 4-9 Gcses a head. In their most recent inspection in January 2017, the Independent Schools Inspectorate gave us an excellent rating, and I hope they would today. Except of course the landscape has changed. Here is the Deputy Director of the Department for Education, Peter Swift, writing last month to us:

“However it is critically important that there is no discrimination in the way this provision is organised and delivered. As well as boys and girls having to have an equally wide range of subject choices, it is important too that the teaching is of the same quality and also that the facilities they have access to are equally good. Where a diamond school operates on a single site, this last point is not likely to be a problem because boys and girls will be using the same facilities — the gym, the IT suite, the chemistry labs, etc. But for a school that operates on separate sites this can present a prodigious problem. To comply with the law it would be necessary to ensure that neither site had facilities that were superior — or inferior — to the other. This is likely to be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. There is a theoretical alternative of moving the children from site to site so that they only ever use the same facilities, at either site (eg a gym at one site and an IT suite at the other, etc). But, depending on the distance between sites, this may present insuperable operational problems as well as being wasteful in terms of time, money and transport costs, as well as all the additional transport being deleterious to the environment.
Consequently it is likely that a diamond school that has traditionally operated from separate boys and girls sites may conclude that the only way that it will be possible to comply with the law will be to re-engineer their buildings so that provision for boys and girls is co-located in the same premises. “ You can read the whole letter here –

Right from the start of planning our new campus back in 2013, we were crucially aware of the existential threat arising from this legislation; whilst the AL Hijrah judgement forced everyone’s hands 2 years ago, reinforced of course by the DfE’s clear guidance from June 2018 that segregation per se caused detriment in schools, the writing has long been on the walls. The Independent Schools Standards Regulations demand that schools meet a whole raft of curricular, pastoral care, welfare, accommodation and leadership standards, and we’ve got to provide equality of opportunity and provision for our children at comparable ages. Wiser counsel than me have studied the form; here’s Kevin McDaniel, Director of Children’s Services on the matter in July:

“While the local authority does not have a duty to ensure that independent schools
comply with this guidance, in this context, I appreciate your point of view, that the
proposed consolidation of the Claires Courts School sites onto a single location is a
sensible way to comply with the guidance whilst still maintaining the chosen diamond model of education. I should however note that it is not the only way to achieve compliance with the guidance.”

Kevin McDaniel is right in suggesting other routes are open to us; for example we could apply to upgrade our sites to meet the mutual requirements of all, or we could move away from our single sex model from age 5 to 16 and go fully co-ed. Trouble is, since 1990, RBWM planning advice has directed against any further major development on the Senior Boys site, so there exists no option here to add Art textiles, food, or additional music facilities for senior boys, nor swimming pool, playing fields and the like. There are lots more examples, and not just for seniors but juniors too. All our arguments are fully rehearsed in our submission to the planning authority, and their judgement just published agrees with ours:

With regard to the above, evidence has been provided on the shortcomings of the existing school buildings and the challenges this puts in place for sustaining and improving educational standards in addition to complying with the Equality Act 2010. There is also evidence to demonstrate that alternatives in relation to addressing the shortcomings of the school buildings on the existing sites would present difficult challenges in terms of the practicalities and financially,
and there are no suitable or reasonably available sites that are sequentially preferable than the proposed site. Therefore, it is considered that the proposal would maintain choice in school places that may otherwise be lost. In accordance with paragraph 94 of the NPPF this should be given great weight to support the proposal and as part of the case for VSC which is assessed below.
” see here page 96, para 9.149

With only days to go until the planning meeting, it seems we are still having to explain and justify our reasons for bringing the school together onto one site; primary legislation has changed the educational landscape as it does from time to time. Over a SIX year period, we’ve consulted and cooperated through the planning process, and next Wednesday sees us able to have our application heard.
Go to to get involved.

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Patricia Fowles – 10 December 1931- 28 July 2019 R.I.P.

Pat Fowles – October 2015

The following is the text of my appreciation of Pat Fowles work within our school over a 50 year period, given at her funeral service held at Slough Crematorium on Thursday 15 August 2019.

“It is with great sadness that we learned of Pat’s death recently, and for me a great privilege to have been asked to say a few words about Pat today. 

I met Pat first in the early summer of 1993, when as the new proprietors of Maidenhead College we took over her employ. She was of course but a young 61 year old then, teaching sciences and thoroughly involved in the care of those who needed additional learning support. Those of you that know our school will recognise that age has no barrier to employment with us, and so it prove with Pat, whose on-going career here lasted until she was taken by her serious illness in April 2016, working in her latter years within learning support and examination services. 

I say I met Pat – it’s fairer to say she met with me, and made her mark straight away. Firstly, Pat was a  redoubtable lady, who could fix child or adult with a steely gaze. It may not be that she had always been quite so formidable, but her experiences in mid-life, divorce followed by having to build a career from scratch certainly made her a force to be reckoned with. Pat’s maiden name was Tozer, commonly believed to have originated in Devon, South West England. It is a reference to the occupation of carding of wool which was originally performed by the use of teasels (Latin carduus), via the Middle English word tōsen, to tease [out]. And my goodness me, Pat could ‘Toze’ like an expert. Once she had me ‘straightened out’, and had worked out that I could be trusted, she then became one of the most delightful of convivial colleagues, always seeking me out as and when to check out that all was well and fill me in on the latest goings on in College Avenue & Road and environs, and the wider St Marks area, where she lived in Fielding Road. 

I am not remotely suggesting that Pat was indiscreet, rather more well-informed and protecting her own interests as best she could, and because she took such a great interest in everyone and everything. For younger vulnerable learners, she opened routes to acquiring skills  they never believed they could master, and to this day former pupils return to the school and ask after Mrs Fowles, who made such a difference to their lives. Taking an interest meant that Pat was a great listener, and for those who wanted or needed an audience, Pat was there for them, as their teacher, as a colleague or indeed simply as a wise friend. 

P. W. Fowles (Mrs) first wrote to the then Maidenhead College on 21 October 1979, to ‘apply for the post of Laboratory Technician , as advertised in this week’s Maidenhead Advertiser. I am forty eight years of age and have had 5 years laboratory experience  at a research station near Bristol and have also taught science at a school in the Midlands, two schools in Gloucestershire & at Furze Platt, Maidenhead. My son has just started at University, & I would like a little job as an added interest.  My phone number should it be required, is Maidenhead 34084. Yours faithfully

P.M Fowles (Mrs) commenced work on or about the 29th November 1979.  Pat’s career with us spanned 5 decades and enriched all of our lives. In the various letters I have been fortunate to find in her personnel file, our school and teachers prove to be a lifeline for her, for shortly after starting with us, she and her husband divorced, heralding a very unhappy period for Pat. She writes a year later in November 1980 to the then headmistress Violet Long  ‘By joining you at the school, I have found  happiness, gratitude and contentment and I pray I can continue to stay with you and perhaps in some small way repay your kindness.’

Some 18 months later, Pat wrote further “My thanks as always go to you and Ann (Doherty) for giving me the opportunity and confidence to pick up the threads of my very shattered life. Without your kindness, I hate to think where I would be today’ 3 April 1982.

It’s clear that in the personal adversity Pat faced almost 40 years ago, she found in our school a place of safety and security. This explains perhaps why she stayed so fiercely loyal over the years, through thick and thin, and why she stayed such a strong advocate for the most vulnerable of children in the school. On her retirement from teaching (April 1996), Pat had pitched to me an idea for providing specialist support for less able pupils – I suggested the idea had ‘legs’, and so it prove, with Pat supporting such children for a further 20 years – she not only repaid those earlier kindnesses but did so magnificently.

Pat drew great comfort from the American poet, Helen Steiner Rice, and she wrote on the back of one such poem notelet which I found yesterday at school. I’ll close with her poem ‘My Thanks’, which so fits how Pat made her life entwine with all of us who worked with her, and who came to value her so highly as a colleague, supported and friend:

Helen Steiner Rice

Pat is survived by her son Mark, who lives in Manchester, and who cared for her so magnificently during her illness over the past 3 years of her life.

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Correlation and Causation – why Independent schools are not to blame for the success of their pupils!

Over recent months, there has been a growing stridency in the voice of the Labour party and its fellow travellers about the role of Independent schools in England’s Education system. Using the #AbolishEton, the group, Labour Against Private Schools, hopes to persuade the party’s conference in September to commit a Labour government to their integration into the state system, whilst at the same time stripping fee-paying schools of their ‘privileges’. You can read more of that in this Guardian article of 9 July. The Guardian has been carrying quite a lot of anti-independent school copy on its pages for many years, but when independent think tank studies such as this one by the Sutton Trust continue to report that Britain’s top jobs are still in the hands of a private school elite, it does cause us all to take a deeper look into quite what is going on in this ‘education space’ of ours. And of course, last week in comes Boris Johnson, the 20th Old Etonian to serve as our new Prime Minister, and ‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’ Q.E.D. it must be true.

It’s certainly true that Eton has been an utterly extraordinary institution for centuries, endowed as a King’s College by Henry VII, attracting the sons of the mighty alongside poor scholars, and yet, within its walls, ensuring that all were treated with great equality, so that its alumni could then ensure that Eton would ‘Esto perpetua’, translating as ‘May it last forever’. With 300 students a year graduating to the very best universities in the world, it should come as no surprise to anyone that its alumni are to be found in positions of influence. Johnson’s cabinet does have 2 other Etonians (his brother Jo and Rees-Mogg Esq.) plus a total 64% of other ministers independently educated. Take a closer look at the England Cricket or Rugby sides, and it is apparent that independent schools more broadly have been developing talent disproportionately more successfully than one might expect of their apparent 7% hold on the country’s population. The BBC summarised the Sutton report in this area well, the graphic below from their report:

My school at 59 years of age, with now circa 100 boys and girls graduating a year from GCSEs/A levels, tracks the success of its former pupils with interest but not forensically, though anecdotally we can certainly see they represent well on departure the qualities of ambition, collegiality and stickability that’s needed later on in life, and their track records subsequently look very encouraging and magnificently diverse. It’s interesting to note that the few of our best footballers that appeared good enough to make it in that sport have had more options than just football, with other sports and higher education seeming more alluring and open as routes. Swap sport for music, drama, the arts, and it’s clear our best have gone on to thrive, build commercial careers, win glittering prizes and awards. Or indeed, stay resolutely academic and reach for University, Doctorates and beyond – CC alumni are there too. In short, the block chain works well – enter Independent Education, gather the academic, social and collaborative skills needed to get on in life, and guess what, you will.

Behind every child to be found in an independent school, and you find a family deeply interested in the school being the right place for their child and getting the best out of them. Throughout my professional career, I have seen successive governments (Labour and Conservative) shift the focus of the state sector from providing a full, broadly facilitated education to one that is only required (and therefore funded) to cover academic subjects in the classroom. As I look at our plans for a new campus to be considered by the RBWM planners at the end of this month, we are clearly not just seeking to cover a narrow academic core. Apart from a rather obvious centre of excellence for regional hockey, the buildings cover all the arts, mathematics, sciences, languages, business, computing and enterprise education we could hope for. Who wouldn’t want their child to have such a set of opportunities? The master blueprint though that’s been allowed has not provided any silver spoons or gold taps – but what it does do is declare unequivocally that ‘all of the various skills and talents that a child might have’ will be nourished here.

And therein lies the heart of the reason why ambitious parents might choose independent education for their children; namely to ensure they have the opportunity to test out their mettle and find their spark. And having chosen to make such an ‘investment’, continuing to hold their attention on the child so that the ‘sparks’ are captured and nourished into the flames of a future ambition. If this is the root of why children succeed, that is, the energy and commitment of their parents and wider family to that success, why don’t the Sutton Trust and others just come out and say that? I’m not blaming the Sutton Trust or others for that matter for being ‘lay journalists’, indeed the founder of the Trust, Sir Peter Lampl actively espouses that the state should fund thousands of place in independent schools in order to “improve educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds and increase social mobility.” The truth is that it is government’s place to make the core decisions on funding, and it hasn’t joined up enough over the past 10 years to make this happen. And here perhaps is why…

Last month, Professor Christopher Ferguson* wrote an excellent article on Bad Data Analysis and Psychologies Replication crisis in Quillette, an aggregating website on ideas help human societies flourish and progress. This triggered a commentary on the same site by Professor April Bleske-Rechek, headlining this Crisis in Psychology, namely the willingness of this new science to sensentationalise weak effects and to bias publications in favour of sales of the ideas in question. She writes “That illness is the conflation of correlation with causation, and the latest research suggests that scientists, and not lay people and the media, are the underlying culprits.Last month, Professor Christopher Ferguson* wrote an excellent article on Bad Data Analysis and Psychologies Replication crisis in Quillette, an aggregating website on ideas help human societies flourish and progress. This triggered a commentary on the same site by Professor April Bleske-Rechek, headlining this Crisis in Psychology, She writes “I believe a related, but perhaps less-recognized, illness plagues psychology and related disciplines (including the health sciences, family studies, sociology, and education). That illness is the conflation of correlation with causation, and the latest research suggests that scientists, and not lay people and the media, are the underlying culprits.

This morning I was listening to Alan Johnson, former Home Secretary and minister in the Blair/Brown Labour government of the noughties. Johnson expressed so clearly that the difference in life expectancy of a boy born in 1950 between North Kensington (where he grew up) and South Kensington is 16 years today. That’s got nothing to do with state or private education, and everything to do with the failure of national government to invest in a joined up way in health, education, welfare and social care. You may recall he was the Minister of State for Universities, and introduced the loans-for-degrees we now have. This has been an amazingly important way of increasing the number of disadvantaged students (on free school meals) from 10% (when student grants existed) to 27% today in 2019 (from 31:00 mins). Any English qualified national can apply to University and receive the funding to attend, with the ‘tax’ on their funding being the requirement to pay back in adult life from the additional earnings as they receive them. Alan Johnson was absolutely clear about what needs to happen if we are to see growing social equality in our country, which is for the Prime Minister to take this requirement for society to provide greater social mobility as the core mission of their premiership and cause the great offices of state to bend to the task. Theresa May expressed this so clearly in her opening speech on entering 10 Downing Street, and was thwarted by the confusion of Brexit.

There is a clear correlation that exists between opportunity and success that follows, and a clear model already in the UK that shows how opportunity can be extended, through the generous funding for all that is needed for education to work. Of course, you could just nationalise our independent schools, cut the funding to the bone and watch our excellence whither. Alternatively, wise government would introduce vouchers that entitle any to spend to acquire the education of their choice, a situation that works for higher education, and now needs to enter lower down too. Those vouchers would inevitably not cover the full cost of the education received, but would provide to the child concerned a funded place. As universities have had to seek additional revenue streams, so have our independent schools too, and this requirement would continue into the future. Where state schools are already good enough, and there are so many that are just that, parents would not need such a voucher. But since such schools cause house prices to be so much higher, entry into an alternative independent school would provide other opportunities for parents to consider.

I’ll close with a ‘nod’ to the chairman of the Independent Schools Association, Matthew Adshead, HM of the Old Vicarage school, Derby, who appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme a couple of weeks ago alongside the founder of the @AbolishEton campaign, Holly Rigby, a state school teacher and coordinator of the campaign. Her stance was “There is no justification for the fact that young people’s opportunity to flourish and fulfil their potential is still determined by the size of their parents’ bank balance.” Matthew’s riposte was perfect, asking her to visit his school, and meet with the parents, the postman, the shopkeeper, the hardworking artisans choosing to spend their earnings on their children as they thought best. And therein lies the rub, our parents are everything in our schools, causing the success of their children’s school lives and beyond; we may be architects, designers and such like of course of the opportunities needed, but we but bask in that reflected glory which is of amazing children doing really well. Holly, Jeremy and all, please don’t blame us for the success of our schools, celebrate with us. Don’t let your fury at a Johnson entering Downing Street blind you to the wisdom of another Johnson, one of your own party, who even today clearly is worth celebrating for the actions he caused when in government to improve social mobility.

* Professor Christopher Ferguson has a book coming out in January 2020, entitled How Madness shaped History. His tag line suggests an interesting read – “This lively investigation demonstrates that, when conditions are ripe, one unstable individual can create the best or worst moments of a generation or even a century.

With Trump in the White House and Johnson in 10 Downing Street, who possibly has he in mind?

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