Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Celebrating a very good school

“You don't make something that’s bad better by making something that’s good worse.”

I visited my old school last week. Now the very term “old school” gives you a hint as to what sort of school it is – add “tie” and you’ll get it. “The Leys School”, where I spent my teenage years, is an independent school in Cambridge. Originally a Methodist foundation it is now a very modern coeducational secondary school which, whilst not secular, is far from a non-conformist truth factory. Actually it wasn't particularly religious when I was there in the 1960s either - despite our having to go to chapel twice a day, every day! Christopher Hitchens, a contemporary, remarked late in his life that he had “Learned more in the chapel than anywhere else in the School”. I know what he meant, paradoxical it may seem for atheists to say so.

I was at The Leys to see the opening of the new “Great Hall” its new centrepoint for gatherings of all sorts. It is a 300+ seat theatre but is so designed to be flexible and to be swiftly capable of being transformed into a wide range of configurations depending on what is needed. It has cost £9m substantially from bequests and donations including a modest contribution from me – which is why I was there. The Hall was opened by the Monarch’s youngest son and, republican though I am, I have to say Edward did the job very well.

In some respects The Leys is typical of the very best of the independent schools sector. Well I would say that wouldn't I ? Back in the days when I was there and for a while after I left The Leys and schools like it were described as “minor Public Schools”. That term has fallen away a bit – although it is used by Charles Moore in his biography of Margaret Thatcher. Moore is an Old Etonian – nuff said! Anyway minor or not it is a very good school indeed and as such surely to be supported? This is where for a Leftie like me things start to get tricky. At best I can be accused of hypocrisy and at worst of defending privilege and elitism.

If we were creating an education system from scratch today would there be a place in it for schools like The Leys? Well not as selective, expensive indulgences for the middle-classes there wouldn't. Does the school confer advantages on its pupils that the State system does not? Of course it does – that is the main reason parents send their children there. Does your “bog-standard comprehensive” have a Great Hall – of course it does not. So if you believe in “Equality of Opportunity” you cannot defend The Leys can you? Well here’s the rub – we are not creating an education system from scratch. We have what we have. In Britain there is a diversity of schools which is unique in the world and even within the state sector in any area there is likely to be bewildering range of school types: High schools, Church schools, other “Faith” schools, Grammar schools, Academies, Free schools – and so on. They operate with different teaching methods, recruit from different cohorts of society and even teach against different curriculums. Its a shambles. Along with this muddled State sector there is the fee-paying independent sector, of which The Leys is part.

Around 25% of the intake of the 24 elite “Russell Group” universities comprised independent school sixth formers - although these schools educate only 7% of all of Britain's pupils. And by virtually every other criterion the products of these schools have a better chance in life then the average pupil from a State school. Its pretty iniquitous and I find it impossible to defend what we have. So do I want to abolish the independent sector or at least make life more difficult for it by removing the charitable status that the schools have as educational establishments? Emphatically not! Would one State school be improved one iota if The Leys was forced to decamp to (say) America because it was no longer welcome in Britain? Would teachers who chose to be in the independent system suddenly willingly return to the State system – some might, others might follow the School to America (or wherever). What is good about The Leys, and the rest, can be a model to which State schools aspire. And if this is patronising (it is!) it is also true.

I am proud to have been at The Leys and proud that it has blossomed as a fine School by any standards. I don't like inequality in education any more than I like inequality anywhere in our society. But:

“You don't make something that’s bad better by making something that’s good worse.”


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