In recent times, independent schools have been the focus of considerable negativity in the national press. I wrote about this in September at the time of the Labour Party Conference which was debating whether our sector should be abolished. Although this prospect has receded somewhat with Mr Corbyn’s defeat in December’s General Election, there are plenty who would place the blame for social inequality at the door of schools like ours. I would much prefer the national debate to focus on how standards of education might be raised by learning from what the best institutions do, whether they are state-run or independent. The social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust, recently released a report entitled ‘Elites in the UK’, which was broadly covered in the media. Its remit was very broad, looking at a variety of social factors that increase mobility and earning power, but it was a particular conclusion about independent schools that caught my eye. According to the report’s authors, it is a ‘relaxed’ approach to discipline in our schools that helps pupils to succeed in later life.
I did not immediately recognise the description of our discipline regime as ‘relaxed’, so I read on. Part of the Sutton Trust’s research project had been based in a nameless ‘elite’ boys’ school in London. Researchers found that ‘the teaching style in private schools reinforces ‘a “flat” hierarchy where the students perceive themselves as relatively equal to those in positions of authority’. This sounds more familiar. From the start of an LGS education, we encourage questioning (and, my, don’t 11-year olds have plenty of questions?) and teachers aren’t afraid to indulge boys’ interests, creating a sense of relaxed informality. I think that this is highly desirable as it helps to create constructive relationships between boys and their teachers. Pedagogical research has found that students make best progress through ‘relational teaching’; where strong relationships make students (and boys in particular) want to work for their teachers, creating a ‘working alliance’.
The Sutton Trust concludes that the perception of ‘flattened hierarchy’ in our schools, alongside a more relaxed, more ‘adult’ approach to discipline, ‘provides space for students to practise their interactions with those in authority, without fear of repercussions, so that they gain confidence in navigating amongst elite personnel. Thus, they are given the opportunity to learn how to effectively apply pressure on those with power to secure advantages for themselves.’ Although I hadn’t necessarily thought that this was what we were doing at the Grammar School, it describes quite accurately something that we are seeking to achieve: that boys will have the confidence, manners and awareness of social niceties to project their best selves in front of those in a position to make decisions about their future.
I don’t think that this is the only reason why independently educated students are able to project a sense of self-belief. The experiences that our boys gain outside the classroom develop these same ‘soft’ skills: teamwork, communication, perseverance and inter-personal skills. This week, I have been enjoying, alongside hundreds of pupils and parents, the 525th anniversary production of Les Misérables. This has been a towering achievement for the hundreds of students and staff involved, whether as actors or instrumentalists, or behind the scenes. I would particularly like to give my thanks to Mrs Bruton for her direction, and to
Mr Morris and Mr Thompson for their preparation of the musical side. The excellence of these performances is testament to thousands of hours of commitment from staff and students, and will, I’m sure, in 20 years’ time, be the defining memory of their school careers.
I am sure that such co-curricular endeavour is a crucial contributory factor to the eventual success of our leavers. It is the experience of achievement that builds the self-confidence to grasp future opportunities, whether that is achievement in academic, dramatic or sporting spheres. In addition, we must never under-estimate the importance of the self-discipline required to commit lines, lyrics and actions to memory and the resilience acquired when scenes break down in rehearsal and need to be worked on countless times until good enough. I may be referring to drama because of this week’s events, but the same is true for debating, or presenting one’s STEM project at the Big Bang Competition at the NEC, Birmingham next week (Coronavirus permitting!) In the classroom, we will continue to focus on the relational teaching that gives boys the confidence to express themselves, but this will only ever be half of the picture.