Bernard's educational pieces for other periodicals

The Power of Gravitas

Published in Attain magazine, Spring Edition, 9th January 2015

Unusually, you can listen to this as a voice file via Attain’s website here.

When someone asked the great jazz trumpet-player, Louis Armstrong, “What is swing?” Satchmo famously replied, “If you gotta ask, you ain’t got it!”

Perhaps it’s the same with gravitas. That particular virtue is applauded in teachers and heads alike. It seems we have a human need to be able to perceive it in all those who lead us. Perhaps the overwhelmingly negative current view of Ed Milliband as Labour Party Leader stems from that demand. Somehow he’s reckoned not to have it: and pictures such as that of the unfortunate bacon sandwich are trotted out by way of demonstration of his haplessness. By contrast David Cameron does look more like a real leader, because he can apparently turn on the gravitas when he needs to.

A few rare creatures can succeed in robust defiance of that requirement. Boris Johnson remains a popular figure, balancing buffoonery with his weighty responsibilities as elected mayor of a great capital city. When he famously got stuck on the zip-wire during the 2012 Olympics, he clowned his way through it and as a result gained friends rather than losing respect. David Cameron was said to remark, with honesty and perhaps a degree of envy, “Only Boris could make a triumph out of what should have been a PR disaster”.

This isn’t a party-political statement: it’s merely an observation, people-watching, if you like. The odd thing about party leaders and potential or actual prime ministers is that how they look, how they carry themselves, seems to be as important as their party or their policies. People want to be led: but they insist on being led by someone who impresses, who looks like, well, a proper leader.

That brings me back to school heads and the demand for gravitas. Wikipedia defines gravitas as “one of the Roman virtues, along with pietas, dignitas and virtus. It may be translated variously as weight, seriousness and dignity, also importance, and connotes a certain substance or depth of personality”.

Wow! That’s a tall order! But then, people do have very high expectations of heads. They want everything. They want an air of natural authority, yet balanced with humanity and approachability. They want firmness, but flexibility for their own child. They demand a powerful presence: but they don’t want to be frightened by it. The list of contradictions is potentially endless.

Why is there this apparent absolute requirement for gravitas from a head? There’s something apparently in our psyche still that compels radio presenters to talk of “headmasters”: even female ones. The old image is readily conjured: venerable; begowned; peering over half-moon glasses; wise in judgment; terrible in wrath; all-powerful; almost infallible.

Now I think of it, I like it!

That terrifying, daunting image stems from a mixture of fiction and personal history. There is a persistent image, perhaps a folk memory, of “great headmasters”. Think of Dr Arnold, the wise, humane but nonetheless terrifying head of Rugby School: he was a real figure, though his protégé Tom Brown was invented by author Thomas Hughes. Even in the sphere of comic fiction, the teacher and headmaster who could quell even Frank Richards’s irrepressible Billy Bunter of Greyfriars with a single glance (generally followed by several strokes of the cane) were Mr Quelch and Dr Locke. These were austere, formidable, remote figures, savage in their application of discipline.

In present-day fiction, Gillian Cross’s Demon Headmaster certainly possesses gravitas, even if his power is achieved through mass hypnosis. Teachers’ favourite literary headmaster is, according to a Times Educational Supplement poll, JK Rowling’s creation Albus Dumbledore. Though a maverick, with a rebellious nature, a sense of humour and an inconvenient habit of disappearing when his school was in crisis, he nonetheless has a natural authority and an ability to inspire awe: undoubtedly he’s aided in that by possessing formidable magical powers (how useful they would be to a head!).

It’s as if there’s something comforting about these daunting figures, especially when we have experienced such a type in real life. The first set of governors for whom I worked as a head were mostly old boys of the school, and used to relish describing the frisson of terror as their old headmaster walked into the hall for assembly. They clearly trembled in his presence and recounted the experienced with gusto decades later. He was, they believed, a Great Man. And one to be feared.

Moreover, is it something a head can learn and develop, or does such a question merit only a Louis Armstrong-type response?

Actually, I think we can learn it and develop it: and in the 21st Century, at any rate, gravitas needs to be a mask that can be worn or removed at need. No one wants their school run by a bully, though there have been contrary indications over the last decade, under two complexions of government. Since the turn of the century there’s been a powerful emphasis in the maintained sector on super-heads. These are tough guys (of either gender) who move into troubled schools, kick ass (to use an American movie expression) sort things out and then, rather like Sir Michael Wilshaw’s hero Clint Eastwood, ride off into the sunset – or, more likely, to sort out the next one.

I’ve always been suspicious of that image. I don’t think anywhere should be run by a bully, and I don’t think bullying brings about sustainable improvement. Fortunately I’ve met very few heads, even those you might call super-heads, applauded by government, who in the flesh fit either the bully or the Clint Eastwood mould.

Transforming heads are immensely tough: but much tougher on themselves than they are on their employees, and tough because resilience is essential in such a demanding job where they, not their staff, are so visibly in the firing line.

To all intents, then, the hero-head is a dying species, and rightly so. Parents want headteachers who are approachable, kind and clearly like children, working with them out of a true vocation. So they want to see someone able to relax with them, to laugh with them, to care and even to cry with them.

Nonetheless, the demand for gravitas remains. They want the head to stand on a podium and look the part: to speak out with the authority of an experienced professional against daft government measures, a hostile inspection process, a falsehood in the Press; and they want their child’s head to back their child and their school to their last breath.

And what of present-day heads? Are we still expected to project an image that is an improbable blend of Churchill and Gandhi, Mandela and Ivan the Terrible? I fear we are, notwithstanding the contradictions inherent in that manifestation. For headteachers then, gravitas is the assumption, the putting-on, of that experienced professional mask. Mask is perhaps not the right word: it implies that something else is hidden, that it is a kind of disguise.

It mustn’t be. Authenticity in leadership is vital: successful leaders are themselves, not putting on an act in the office or playing a part in assembly. The achievement of great school leaders is defined and driven by the values that drive them personally as well as professionally: if you cut them in half you will find that passion for giving children the best opportunities written all the way through them, like a stick of seaside rock.

Some heads are too fond of the formal occasion, of standing on that stage and playing the status card. Too easily they lapse into pomposity. Others do it too unwillingly, their reluctance to use their exalted status giving rise to constantly missed opportunities to add dignity, to honour the achievements of children or teachers.

As always, it’s a question of balance. Heads who are at ease with themselves and with assuming or abandoning status at need are capable, for example, of standing in the stocks at the summer fair while being pelted with wet sponges and, later the same day, standing on the speech-day platform and holding hundreds if not thousands in thrall.

It’s a matter of judgement. If you’re not sure that you can make that transition, my advice would be not to do so. Avoid the sponge-throwing, and practise that speech like fury.

I can’t delay it any longer. I guess at some stage I have to give my personal reflection on gravitas. I’ve been a head for 25 years, so can certainly draw on experience in order to appear authoritative and knowledgeable. I’m six feet tall and have a loud voice, so maybe I can do the act. Can I carry it off entirely? I’m sure I can’t.

For a start, I’m accident-prone. I recall, early in my career as a music teacher, being delighted that I had managed to keep the whole First Form (we called it that, back then) under control as I taught them to sing hymns. I leaned back from the piano and rested my arm on a convenient ledge: only to find that it was the crash-bar for the fire-door, and I disappeared backwards amid uproar.

Then there was the time, as a head, that I had to rebuke an entire class. I stormed into a chemistry lesson and delivered a magnificent telling-off. You could have heard a pin drop. I turned on my heel and stalked out – unfortunately, into the store cupboard, rather than out into the corridor. I thought the poor teacher was going to injure herself as she tried desperately not to laugh.

Finally, I find I cannot take the occasion or myself seriously for very long. As soon as we heads start to strut and preen, we risk becoming ridiculous: unfortunately (or perhaps happily), something usually makes me laugh before (I hope) I reach that point.

During a recent prize-giving I was rather proud of the quick changeover on the stage between the junior choir singing and the table full of prizes arriving on what’s a limited stage space. But when someone muttered, just too loudly, “It’s a bit like the Chuckle Brothers”, I couldn’t keep a straight face any longer. I’m still at a loss as to whether they reckoned I was Barry or Paul out of those two, TV favourites of my daughters 20 years ago.

The answer is yes, then. We do need gravitas. If you think you’ve got it, don’t let it turn to pomposity. If you haven’t got it, then fake it: and practise in front of a mirror. As the French dramatist Hippolyte Giraudoux (1882-1944) said, often quoted by comedian George Burns: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Schools and bullying: knowing our limits

Text of a talk given at the All-Party Parliamentary group of Bullying in Schools at Portcullis House, Westminster, 17 October 2012: reproduced here from the website of Carrie Herbert CBE, Founder of Red Balloon Learner Centres

There is something rather charming about us schools: we desperately want to get it right for every child. Actually, we do get it pretty right for them, just about: and we do so most of the time.

But we don’t, cannot do so absolutely all of the time. And we are not good at recognising that fact. And, when we find we are not coping with it, we don’t always behave well.

We don’t like to admit to our limitations, or our shortcomings. So when it’s a matter of bullying – which brings with it all kinds of feelings of guilt, sorrow, hurt and outrage – we tend to blame the victim (for not telling us openly or soon enough): or we blame the parent (for hiding it, being over-protective, whatever). And we say we could have sorted it out, if only they’d let us.

It’s not true, of course. We always feel awful when bullying happens despite our best efforts (and those efforts are strenuous, thoughtful, methodical and thorough). We feel we should be able to fix it. Hence why some schools, heads or senior teachers can be in denial when it goes wrong. On such occasions, victims and their parents are doubly hurt – by the failure to prevent the bullying, and by the school’s reluctance to accept that it got it wrong. Pain on more pain.

Any head who says there is no bullying in their school is lying – or otherwise hopelessly deluded. In schools we throw young people together and, as in all walks of human life at all ages, bullying happens. A kind, thoughtful and proactive school will minimise it. But it will still happen.

I can think of a young woman, now 27 or 28 (and still in touch with one of my former colleagues) who was, in effect, bullied out of school at the age of 16. She was charming, a very talented dancer: she shone in a school show. Two jealous girls made her life a misery. Clearly there were some insecurities in the victim’s background: talk of eating disorders, for example. Now in her late 20s she still deals with eating disorders. She is a dance instructor: but she bears the scars.

Curiously, the two bullies also left the school: all three girls made fresh starts in other places for the sixth form, and all did quite well at A level. There was terrible damage to the victim, and denial by the bullies and their parents – arguably another kind of damage.

I can think of a different case. A 12-year-old boy who, after just one year in secondary school, didn’t come back in September for Year 8. His mother said he’d been bullied on account of his ginger hair. We had no inkling it was happening in the school. They didn’t tell us, she said, because they reported bullying in his primary school: the school had acted heavy-handedly and all it had done was make it worse. So they didn’t tell us: and without us being able to do anything, he simply left and went to another school. We pray that the pattern hasn’t repeated itself there: experience suggests that it probably has, or will.

Those two cases simply serve to illustrate why in schools we feel so bad when we can’t solve a bullying issue.

But the point of my talk is to say that we should stop beating ourselves up. We must do everything we can, employ all the strategies we know and experiment with new ones, to prevent bullying. But we should stop being too proud or too insecure to accept that we won’t win in every case.

The overwhelming majority of truants/school refusers do what they do because of bullying or the fear of bullying. The merely ‘disaffected’ or alienated are a very small proportion. Sadly for children bullied out of school, local authorities offer few alternatives. Some suggest sending a bullied child to a pupil referral unit, alongside those who may have been excluded for behavioural reasons. Others point to a school’s inclusion or nurture unit: these can be hugely effective but for, the child for whom school becomes truly an impossibility, these are not viable alternatives.

The local authorities, their welfare officers and those who help children out of school, can be as inflexible as schools, equally unwilling to admit that they haven’t got all the answers.

That’s where Red Balloon comes in, almost uniquely. Red Balloon frequently boasts that it gets children back into school. More accurately, in nearly every case it gets them back into mainstream education, but that’s by looking after them until they are 16 when they can go to a college of one sort or another. College life is not the same as the tyranny of the school year group, the hectic classroom, the thronging corridors. But Red Balloon has one enormous difficulty: it’s almost unheard of for local authorities or schools to fund the education of a bullied child in a Red Balloon Learner Centre. Schools, always short of money, are reluctant (sometimes unable) to devolve funding to a Red Balloon Learner Centre. They can become mired in bureaucracy with talk of Service Level Agreements and other procedures. And local authorities, equally strapped for cash, simply won’t find the money.

There is, of course, legislation in place that in effect fines schools if they do ‘lose’ children: this is to discourage them from wilfully excluding. But that protection for difficult children becomes a lack of protection for the bullied child. There needs to be a different mechanism, a freeing up, a willingness to fund alternatives: and a readiness to accept in the first place that school or local authority doesn’t have the answer, and that a radical alternative is needed.

This affects a very few children in a school or town: but nationally it adds up to thousands, and thousands of lives are wrecked. They are wrecked mainly because our institutions, our systems and our bureaucracy are so inflexible. In fact, they are intransigent.

Surely it’s time that we can and must make a change.


Widening access, closing doors 

For Independent Education Today

March 2011

With the government leaning on universities to admit more students from state schools, is this yet another barely concealed attack on independent schools?

It seems the media nowadays just love to predict doom and disaster for independent schools. First their headlines were screaming, ‘Private schools to close in economic downturn’: when that didn’t happen, beyond the usual ups and downs and occasional mergers that are characteristic of the sector, newspapers jumped on the government’s agenda to widen access to top universities, using increased fees as a lever to force them to admit more applicants from state schools in general and deprived homes in particular.

The papers are having a field day on this topic at present, spreading alarm among some students and parents. For those of us who work in independent schools this is annoying -  because there is genuinely no basis for it.  Let’s look at some of the facts, and dispel a few myths.

First, is there a problem? There certainly is. Of course government is right to be concerned about the decrease in social mobility of the past decade and the widening gap in school achievement between top and bottom. It is underlined by the 2009 OECD PISA assessment, which reveals that the gap between the highest performers and the lowest performers in the UK is wider than in all other countries. Moreover, this achievement gap mirrors a similar divide in income between richest and poorest.

So government must do something. When it comes to higher education, it is rightly considering ways of raising aspiration and ensuring that lack of it does not prevent young people who should be aiming for top university courses from doing so. Among these ways may be incentives for universities to look more carefully at their outreach to those applicants who might be deterred and to devise ways of reducing or lowering the barriers that confront them.

So the papers are full of rhetoric from some self-appointed pundits and outspoken back-benchers (or even embittered front-benchers) demanding that something be done about the ‘unfair’ advantage of candidates from independent schools when it comes to winning places at top universities. It was particularly alarming recently to see the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, denouncing universities as ‘élitist’. Only in Britain, one is tempted to complain, would élite institutions be castigated for being precisely that – being the best and existing for the best. For us Brits it’s always been bad form, somehow, to try too hard or be good at something, except in the spirit of the glorious amateur!

If all that talk is bad news, the good news it that it is mostly hot air. When it comes to reality, instead of posturing, the Coalition is well aware of the vital part that independent schools play in maintaining the highest standards and sustaining the flow of candidates into ‘hard’, minority and endangered subjects (what we now call STEM or SIV subjects, of which categories Physics fits into both). Whatever spokesmen say publicly in order to grab headlines, or votes, ministers have no desire to do us or our students harm. Indeed, our representatives are in regular contact with them: the joint Universities Sub-Committee of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) is a powerful lobby that speaks directly to government - which in turn readily seeks its views.

So what is the reality for schools in our sector? While the current year is by all measures the toughest ever for admissions, the pressure comes simply and solely from the sheer level of competition: more applicants than ever are trying to win a place at university before the fees increase threefold. Moreover the sort of pupils that attend independent schools, as ambitious and aspiring for themselves as their parents are for them, rightly tend to apply for places on the more prestigious and selective courses.

It can be justifiable for a university to make a lower offer to a candidate whose home or school background suggests that, despite undoubted potential, they may not be supported sufficiently to be sure of a top grade, while demanding the usual high score from someone in a high-performing independent school. No fair-minded independent school head would complain about thoughtful decisions being made about such cases on an individual basis. And, indeed, it is important to stress that in the sector at large we have until now no concrete evidence of bias against independent schools by admissions tutors.  It is only where any kind of systematic discrimination or quota might be introduced that we would raise objections.

There are occasional ripples, to be sure. Independent schools have so far mounted successful objections where dubious statistical processes have been introduced, allegedly to ‘level the playing field’. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some university departments may be a little over-enthusiastic in this regard, and the associations keep track of them. Where the occasional ‘rogue’ has appeared (think of Bristol’s history department a few years ago or Durham’s more recent ‘modifier’), the HMC/GSA Universities Sub-Committee has been able to swing into action and use its very considerable clout to put matters right. It is tough out there – but it is not unfair.

So what will happen in future years? Stories in the press about how universities will be ‘leaned on’ or tied to quotas by government are, for the time being at least, pure speculation: the universities themselves have no information at present as to what government might propose, nor how any mechanism could be imposed or could work. More has been written by journalists on the topic than by ministers, civil servants or admissions tutors. We need to remember that, and do all we can to calm parents’ fears when the next scare story emerges.

Top universities and courses want the best candidates: Oxford and Cambridge have come out saying that they will seek to charge the new maximum £9000 fee in order to maintain excellence. They will not compromise on quality. Oxford, for example, proclaimed recently that it will not bow to any pressure to offer lower grades, since it turned away 1438 state school students last year who went on to achieve at least A*A*A. Cambridge would claim that its thorough interview process identifies both potential and ‘over-preparation’. On the other hand, Cambridge also announced that it was planning to raise its proportion of state-educated undergraduates from 58 to 63 per cent. That is, in truth, a small rise – but is it just the first step, the thin end of a sinister wedge?

So it is not going to get any easier for independent school candidates to win a place at any top institution, but that will be as a result of their seeking the best, not because of bias or any kind of positive discrimination. The ‘magic circle’ universities (including Oxbridge) and the Russell Group alike – the places often referred to as the ‘selecting’ as opposed to ‘recruiting’ universities - are too focused on academic outcomes to start playing games of social manipulation.

The sector has outstanding representatives keeping a close eye on the situation, nailing lies when published and putting pressure on universities and government alike to ensure a proportionate and sensible response to a genuine social challenge. Individual schools and heads need to keep parents informed and use what influence they can to ensure that distortions and exaggerations are exposed. The truth is un-dramatic and frankly dull for the media: when it comes to doing down independent school candidates, there is no story. Not yet, anyway.


What Price A*

For Independent Education Today

November 2010

A levels have a new top grade. To sort the highest performers from the ‘merely’ very good, the A* is now in place and the first results were received in August 2010. The aim was simple. Against a backdrop of ever-increasing numbers of A grades, a new discriminator was felt to be needed, especially by the most selective universities. With over 20% of all A levels being graded A, such universities claimed they no longer received enough information about the quality of applicants to their most selective courses, so something needed to be done. A* was part of the answer, along with more open-ended questions in A2 designed to test candidates’ critical thinking skills.

How A levels work

A level is nowadays divided into two parts, AS and the more demanding A2. They are modular courses, with an opportunity to take exams in January and June in each of the course’s two years. Normally the aim would be to complete AS in the first year, and A2 in the second: some schools would choose to use both exam sessions in each year, many have ignored the January block in the first or both years, while still others elected from the start to ignore the modular nature of the exam and take all the papers at the end of the upper sixth year, as “in the old days”.

The latter are few, in truth, because the decision to do all the exams in one final session, while avoiding the interruption of three other exam periods during the course, removes the opportunity for re-sitting. And the multiple sitting of exams is, of course, one of the chief reasons for the relentless rise in A level results.

Why would it be otherwise? Schools rapidly become adept at operating any new exam system. Moreover, young people are themselves canny, and candidates quickly learnt how to use re-sits to maximise their results. So, until recently, even candidates who got a grade A or good B at AS level might nonetheless re-take a paper in January of the Upper Sixth in order to improve their overall mark (the “UMS score”).

How A* works

Where the A* is a new departure lies in the fact that it is only awarded at A2, not in the first-year AS qualification. To gain an A* candidates must gain 90% of the total marks (UMS) in the A2 papers. This can produce some anomalies. A candidate might score 259/300 at AS level and 272/300 at A2. That total of 531/600 gains the candidate an A* as a result of the A2 mark. Another candidate (a real case) who scores a remarkable 293/300 at AS level but just 269/300 at A2 does not gain the A*, even though the total UMS mark, 562/600, is higher.

This might appear rough justice. However, A2 has been redesigned to incorporate more searching questions, and A* to reward those candidates who show real depth and insight. That, at least, is the opinion of Cambridge University’s Admissions Director, Geoff Parks. Cambridge was the first university (the only one in 2010) to include A* in its offers for places, though most other universities will follow swiftly.

Cambridge regards A* as an excellent predictor of future success at degree level, just as it now looks more closely at AS scores than GCSE grades, in contrast to the many universities that apparently still rely on across-the-board achievement at GCSE. Cambridge was keen to use that high-level discriminator, the A* grade, as a means to ensuring breadth of application (or admission) across the sectors and across social divides: in other words, if A* was more able than the traditional A level to reward sheer brilliance, rather than the good coaching which independents are seen as providing, it might be seen as a means to widening access.

Good news for independent schools

However, William Stewart of the Times Educational Supplement [Has A* made the grade?] thinks otherwise, and feels that the independent sector has colonised the new top grade. Certainly appearances are on his side. Across the independent sector the average percentage of grades awarded A* in 2010 was 22%, compared to 8% across all schools. Moreover, 30% of all the A* grades awarded went to candidates in independent schools, who represent just 18% of the total A level entry.

For parents this is all good news, demonstrating (as the sector’s critics complain) that, once again, independent schools have capitalised on a system change. However, the schools themselves should not take all the credit. Their highly-motivated, aspiring pupils made the A* work to their advantage. Set that high target, they were still more pragmatic and painstaking in their approach to their exams than their predecessors. Indeed, many of the more academic independent schools celebrated A* rates above 30%: even given their highly selective intake, that is an impressive figure.

So what does this mean for future candidates? There is no doubt that universities will demand more A* grades. Those impressive figures for independent schools will probably rise further as still more boys and girls are set and meet these demanding offers. It also means that top students are likely to be advised not to spend time and energy re-sitting AS levels in the upper sixth form, but to aim instead for the vital 90% mark at A2 in order to gain their A*: re-sits may thus reduce in quantity.

Universities such as Cambridge say the A* will help them to indentify the very brightest. But it will not solve all their problems. In the short term there may be fewer candidates for the top universities to sift through: in the long run it may make little difference, since over the coming years ever more A*candidates will apply. The worry for schools is, perhaps, that the existence of the new “super grade” may make universities less inclined than ever to read personal statements and school references. There is the danger that they will simply look at past achievement, the number of A*s predicted and little else. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is already happening: A* may simply increase the habit.

No worries

However, there is nothing particular to worry parents or candidates here. In recent years both have become accustomed to the stratospheric grades required to win a place on a top course: and they have found that hard work, application and excellent teaching help them to achieve them. The evidence so far is that the independent sector has not been dismayed by A*, regarding it, on the contrary, as an opportunity successfully grasped.

Holding university offers

One piece of advice that candidates and parents would do well to take on board would be to ensure that candidates hold a significantly lower reserve (“Insurance”) offer of a place. If they are being offered A*A*A to win a place on a top course, they may want also to apply to a university that puts a B or two in amongst the required grades. Things do go wrong on the day, and a less demanding option is a wise precaution. After all, candidates can apply for up to five universities, so can afford to include one or two less glorious names just for safety’s sake.

Otherwise, for schools, teachers, parents and candidates alike it is business as usual. To the same unremitting pressure to achieve, the solution remains the same: excellent preparation, hard work and careful planning.


A head start

For Living North magazine

October 2010

It’s tough out there.  Cuts are biting.  Loss of jobs or fear of losing them make long-term planning impossible for families.   They cannot unlock the now diminished equity in their homes because house sales are slow and bank lending has swung from the previously profligate to the presently parsimonious.

In order to live cautiously and avoid risk, families spend less on furniture and home improvements. They don’t go out so often – as hoteliers, restaurateurs and pub landlords will tell you.  They put off buying that new car.  They scale back the holidays.  They pull their horns in, cut out the luxuries, stick to the necessities.  It is the new Austerity Britain.

So how does private education fare in such challenging economic times? At £10,000 a year at secondary level, and up to three times that for boarding school, surely school fees are an element of family expenditure ripe for the chop? 

Astonishingly, the number of children in independent schools is holding up: indeed, year on year it is still creeping up, even in this difficult climate.  Yet private schooling represents a huge commitment on the part of families over a period of years.  And once children are in that system, parents find it incredibly hard to change course.  Even when they hit financial difficulties, school fees are the last thing to go.  The financial commitment is matched by an emotional, intellectual attachment of enormous potency.

What is it about private education that makes parents who choose it for their children value it so highly, fight tooth and nail to keep it going even when they find themselves in straitened circumstances and gladly – well, pretty cheerfully at any rate - accept that huge financial commitment  for two, five, seven, even 15 years? 

No one forces them to spend those sums.  There is always a state school down the road, and the government is obliged to provide a place - somewhere.  GCSE and A-level results are improving all the time, across the board.  League tables, love them or loathe them (I detest them), give parents some idea about how schools are performing.  Besides, politicians banging on about social mobility always complain that the articulate middle-classes always manage to bag the best schools.  So if you believe any of that, there is a strong case for saying that skilful parents can get their children into the best maintained schools, which are very good: indeed, the “average” school is nowadays rather better than average!

All parents get gooey-eyed at times about wanting the best for their children, but school fees are not like an over-the-top birthday party or posh dress.  They go on, year after year.  Yet this is all about parents wanting the best of their children, and those parents who pause to analyse their motives generally talk about investing in their child’s future.

Their critics accuse them of snobbery:  ‘They just want their Cedric to learn alongside other Isabellas and Algernons rather than with those nasty rough estate kids, making contacts and networks that will buy them advantage throughout their lives.’ That argument is as spurious is the other one; that parents simply want to be able to brag about where they send their children to school.  There are more affordable forms of one-upmanship and impressing the neighbours.

Parents are nonetheless seeking precisely to buy advantage for their children.  Not an advantage that stems from snobbery, old school tie networks or unfair privilege, but one based on the commercial contract of buying the best for one’s child, being able in return to demand that the best is supplied.  Three benefits flow from this contractual relationship between school and home. 

First, there is the requirement that the school delivers: direct accountability. Second, because education is not an exact or quantifiable process and because teachers are for the most part idealistic, values-driven characters, their sense of vocation and determination to provide the best for their pupils are only strengthened by the financial obligation imposed by school fees: added value.  Third, the financial commitment the family makes demonstrates how highly it values education. Parents and child alike are hugely motivated to make the most of the deal, so they do: a virtuous circle.

Private schools prefer to term themselves independent.  Independence is a crucial element in their success, independence from government.  To be sure, laws and regulations ensure that children are safe and, indeed, that the standard of education is adequate.  But even OFSTED fears to tread too heavily within the independent sector, which is not required to follow the national curriculum or sit national exams.  Thus while dissatisfaction has grown with GCSE and A-level, the independent sector has been able to explore and create alternative exams.  The International GCSE (IGCSE) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) have now gained such popularity that the new government is allowing maintained schools to take them. 

All schools believe in a broad education: there must be more to an education than merely passing exams.  Personal development comes through extra-curricular opportunities in the arts, sport, outdoor education and a host of other activities – the bits that children remember long after they leave school, unlike the lessons! But when government puts the squeeze on its own schools, naming and shaming them and inspecting them to death if they fail to meet the required target, they naturally start concentrating on those benchmarks, sometimes to the detriment of those broader aspects of education.

Independent schools cannot countenance any such narrowing.  Parents sign up for the whole package.  The good exam results are almost  a given, and it is assumed that children will also play in sports teams, learn an instrument, act in the school musical, gain a Duke of Edinburgh Award, run sponsored events for charity. Independent schools accept the contract, and deliver the package: they are simultaneously business-focused and visionary, and they relish the challenge.

The average independent school parent is not one of the super-rich, but is a hard worker who calculates the affordability of school fees and factors them into a detailed life plan, cutting out many of the luxuries, cars and holidays that others enjoy.  Some are on low incomes:  bursaries and scholarships are now offered by many independent schools so that they do not become the exclusive preserve of the well-off.  The commitment is great for those poorer families too, notwithstanding the financial assistance, as they make their contribution and match up to the significant demands that independent schools in turn make of children and parents.

Private education involves a deal, a complex bargain.  What is remarkable is the extent to which parents, children, whole families and the schools work together to make a success of it. I remember, as a very young music teacher, overhearing a parent at a concert I was conducting.  ‘Blimey,’ said the dad. ‘I thought it was our lad who was getting the education, but I’ve never heard anything like that before.”  Independent schools offer a journey of discovery to parents and children alike: it’s the joint, shared nature of the adventure that makes it so special - and so desirable, even in challenging economic times. What emerges from this journey, at its best, is an inspiring mix of breadth of opportunity, sheer quality and a lot of fun along the way. It’s a rare parent that does not say, at the end of it all, that the money was well spent.  




10 things to do before you die

For Living North magazine

July 2010

DrBernard Trafford has been Headmaster of Newcastle’s independentRoyal Grammar School since 2008, after 18 years’ headship in the West Midlands. He was Chairman of the prestigious Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) 2007-8 and writes and speaks widely on educational school policy and leadership and children’s rights in education.  He started out as a music teacher, and his hobbies still centre around playing, singing and writing. He and his wife Katherine live in Jesmond but frequently escape to their cottage in North Northumberland. They have two daughters who both graduated from university in 2007.

Meet Nelson Mandela

I became a head the year Mandela was released from prison. That tireless campaigner for justice, democracy and reconciliation has been a model for me throughout. I expect I’d be tongue-tied, but I’d like to meet the most inspirational human being alive today.

Play jazz in New Orleans

I love to play jazz: the trumpet is my instrument. More than thirty years after I started playing I now, finally, quite like the sound I make. It would be pretty cheeky for someone like me to think I could contribute anything to the birthplace of jazz, but imagine playing in Bourbon Street, South Rampart Street or any of those famous addresses. Wow!

Do the Great North Run

I took up running six years ago to get fit (and thinner). I’m no good, and seem constantly to pull middle-aged muscles. I’d like to run over the Tyne Bridge with 50,000 other people: but I’m not ready (yet) for 13 miles!

Loop the loop in a Tiger Moth

I’d have liked to fly in Concorde, but missed out.  I’ve always been fascinated by those old First World War bi-planes that good pilots can stand on their tails, loop and roll. Wind in the face, ‘seat of the pants’ flying - fantastic.

See the Pyramids

I’ve travelled a bit, and am moved by ancient sites such as Hadrian’s Wall, Scara Brae on Orkney, the amphitheatre in Verona.  So I’d like to visit the Pyramids – and the Great Wall of China too.

Write a hit song

In a childish desire for recognition, I’d like to hear a football crowd singing an anthem by me (I’ve written a couple, but they haven’t caught on yet!) – preferably at St James Park! I’d really like to write a successful West End musical.

Own a micro-brewery

I love real ale. What fun it would be to make proper, living beers; to experiment with new styles; to preserve and develop what is a great and unique tradition. Of course, it might not go well with the day job – nor the waistline.

Gallop across the sands at Holy Island

I’m not really interested in riding: but one day I intend to bluff my way onto a horse and gallop John Wayne-like across the sands at low tide. With so much space, it wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t stop the animal.

Own a villa in Tuscany

Although professionally and creatively I’m fairly restless and keen to improve, I’m very comfortable and contented. Still, I could fancy a beautiful old farmhouse (with swimming pool) on a hill in Tuscany, surrounded by Chianti vineyards and olive groves and with wonderful restaurants all round (they nearly all are wonderful since bad cooking is against Italian culture). And there we’d have family and friends to stay and eat, drink, talk and laugh endlessly. Putting on weight might be a problem: see above!

Sort out UK education

Still, if I were granted one wish by my fairy godmother I’d like to sort out the mess politicians make of education. Persuade them to back off from interfering; cut the bureaucracy; trust professionals; fund schools, colleges and children’s welfare properly. Oh, come on: it’s never going to happen!


To mix or not to mix

For Living North magazine

December 2009

and republished in Independent Executive magazine

January 2013

The issue of co-education generates more heat than almost any other - among schools, that is.  Parents can get drawn into the debate, and some have strong views.  Others feel they just want to find a good school for their child.

But the schools themselves get very worked up. Single-sex schools become hot under the collar about their coeducational neighbours, while mixed schools feel they are being sniped at. 

Why is the issue so contentious?  Some of it has to do with competition.  Independent schools are in competition with each other.  It can be a tough old world for them, particularly in post-credit-crunch Britain, so when one school is trying to make itself more attractive to parents and children than its neighbours, the gloves come off.  The maintained sector isn't immune either. State schools have long been encouraged by government to compete against one another as a lever for improvement: league tables are the most obvious symptom of that market-driven approach. 

In reality, even competing schools in both sectors generally live comfortably together. Rather than competing, indeed, their relationships are more often characterised by the sharing of good practice and training opportunities.  The teaching profession is good like that.

But the single sex/mixed education debate is frequently less amicable.  Mixed schools would say they find the proponents of single-sex education over-strident in the way they imply, for example, that girls get a raw deal by being forced to learn alongside boys.  Mixed classrooms are alleged to be dominated by noisy boys wanting to occupy the teacher's attention.  Gender pressures, it is claimed, deter girls in mixed schools from learning such traditionally "male" subjects as physics and maths.  Boys are said lose out too: they are too busy showing off to the girls. And adolescent boys and girls, if taught together, will both be far more interested in each other than in getting on and learning. 

Single-sex schools, on the other hand, find their co-ed competitors irritatingly smug.  They talk airily about being closer to “real life”, preparing boys and girls together for the adult world: the single-sex lobby accuses them of complacency in ignoring the very different needs of the two genders.

Stereotypes are dangerous, yet arguments around co-education always stray into them.  It is generally agreed that children learn best among peers of similar ability: hence setting or streaming in secondary schools. The separatists take that argument further, claiming that girls and boys learn in different ways, so should be taught separately.  

Back comes the counter-argument: aren’t they then disadvantaging those boys and girls who don’t conform to the stereotype? Plenty of boys have a ‘feminine’ preferred learning style - careful, painstaking preparation and lots of hard, neat work - while some girls prefer to work as boys do typically; flying intellectual kites, taking risks, leaving things to the last minute, relying on inspiration.

If girls taught alongside boys feel constrained to conform to gender stereotypes, single-sex schools can be said to produce their own pressures.  That focused, conscientious, hard-working all-girl environment can be like a pressure cooker. Similarly, boy-only schools are too easily dominated by a laddish, macho culture which at its worst values only sport; devalues culture and the arts;  encourages “top dogs”; treats the weaker or less dominant males badly; and, indeed, gives rise to all kinds of bullying. 

Blimey! Is it really such a jungle out there? If so, what a nightmare for parents! Is it a choice, then, between gender discrimination and sexual bullying on one hand and eating disorders and boys bullying boys on the other? 

No! Calm down. None of those stereotypes is true: that's the problem with this debate, which becomes ridiculously exaggerated and over-heated. 

Any teacher seeing those outrageous descriptions above will snort in derision: ‘That doesn’t happen in a well-run school.’ That’s the point. It doesn’t: and that’s precisely what parents want, a well-run school.

There is no single right answer - nor an entirely wrong one - to the question of whether boys and girls should be taught separately or together.  The only reliable view was outlined in a piece of research published in 2008 by Professors Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson.  They looked into the relative success of students from single-sex and co-educational schools.  When all the other variables were removed these two eminent researchers found no significant differences.  “A good school,” they concluded, “is a good school.”

They were right.  In good schools, teachers know that children learn in different ways, and modify their teaching to suit individuals.  Good schools work to reduce pressure; to combat stereotypes; to eliminate insensitive or bullying behaviour; to provide excellent role models for the boys and/or girls in their care.

So how are parents to choose?  If they are in an area where there is a variety of single-sex and mixed schools, they are lucky: they have a diverse group of schools to choose from.  They need to visit several, not just on those showpiece open days but also on a normal working day, and ask themselves this one question: at which school will my child be happiest and achieve most? 

As for me, I'm a passionate advocate of coeducation.  I love to see boys and girls learning and growing up together. I don’t accept the criticisms levelled at coeducational schools. I work to maintain a school ethos that gives both boys and girls the best chances in everything and I don't shrink from confronting gender issues.  I think my school’s decision to go mixed was the most important change it has made in nearly five hundred years.

But that’s just my view: parents shouldn’t simply take my (or anyone’s) word for it! They must visit schools and make their own minds up. Lucky old them!  It's their privilege (and their child's) to make that judgment.  They just need to ignore the smokescreens and the shrill arguments and base their choice on the reality of the schools they’ve seen.

Remember: at bottom, a good school is a good school.


In the Headmaster’s study

For North-East Times

December 2009

I arrived in Newcastle in the summer of 2008 to take over a school of some 1260 boys and girls, 120 teaching staff and a large support team. That’s twice the size of the school I ran previously and, in quite a tight urban site, the Royal Grammar School is a bustling urban day school. It’s exceptionally high-achieving: over 90% of A level passes at the top grades A and B in 2009 makes our Sixth Form unusual even among selective schools.

We use e-mail a great deal for administrative purposes. That gets administration done quickly, but I need to see people face to face for the important stuff: schools deal with human beings, not digital messages!

Nearly every day I have lunch in the school dining hall, and invariably sit with students. They are a friendly and welcoming bunch, and good company. They are highly articulate, ready to talk frankly about the things they like, and those they don’t. Through lunchtime conversations, other contact with students and a revitalised School Council, I am left in no doubt of what’s needed to keep making the school better for students. But that’s how it should be: school exists for them, and I relish the challenges they present me with!

The best bit of teaching is interacting with young people: you don’t grow out of that when you become a head! Celebrating achievement, helping youngsters along the way, just watching them grow up and grab the opportunities offered to them: those are the things that give the buzz and remind us why we do what we do.

The sheer variety of headship makes it exciting. Even if the diary is full, and the day planned, other interactions, surprises, emergencies and a lot of laughs come my way: the whole of school life passes through the office in the course of a day.

People often ask what has been my best-ever moment: I can’t really answer. When I was a young music teacher, each major concert or tour felt like the greatest experience (so far) of my career. Nowadays, running a whole school and accepting responsibility for so many young lives, I don’t experience the same high-spots: but the satisfaction and reward are deeper and more lasting. And from individual triumph to collective success; teams winning sporting, debating or intellectual competitions; great plays or concerts; an outstanding set of exam results: all these give a deep sense of pride.

When tragedy strikes (as it must occasionally, among so large a community), it can be a privilege to be able to provide sympathy and support - perhaps to someone dealing with the death of a parent or, the unthinkable, the death of a child. Better to be able to do something than feel helpless, perhaps. Dealing with grief and bereavement can thus be the worst of experiences, but nonetheless an opportunity to make a difference.

The central task of schooling is to enable all children to grow into rounded, thoughtful, humane, tolerant and generous people who will make a real and lasting contribution to adult society. The more I see the RGS succeed in that mission, giving our students a deeply happy and fulfilling experience and a lot of fun along the way, the deeper is my lasting satisfaction in the role.

The challenges facing education are immense. This country has got into a terrible vicious circle of excessive testing, designed to test schools as much as pupils. Regulation is out of hand. It’s a brave head that can entirely hold out against such non-stop pressure, and there is a danger that schools will focus on the demands of policy-makers rather than the needs of children. So, when I’m talking or writing about school leadership, I tend to start and finish with courage. It’s not always easy to find that quality at the dark times, but find it we must - because we owe it to the children we teach.

Headship is a tough job, and a challenging one. At times it’s frustrating, at others it’s hilarious, and it’s always ridiculously busy! But it provides the deepest sense of reward and achievement that I can imagine. That’s truly my privilege.



Challenging times

For Schools Advertiser

March 2009 

It's the question the media love to ask: what are the main challenges facing the independent sector at present? Last year it was all about public benefit and wrangling with the Charity Commission over how that might be interpreted - and, indeed, proved.  More recently, of course, that largely political battle has given away to an economic one.  Following the credit crunch and near-global meltdown of the banking system, it is clear that we are heading into recession.  How will that affect the independent sector?  Will there be sufficient numbers of families able to afford the places on offer at theUK’s independent schools?  If there are not enough pupils to fill them, what will schools do? 

They are stark questions, but the answers are a not as simple or distinct as might be imagined.   Indeed, there is significant overlap between those two challenges.  For the issue of public benefit has not gone away.  At the present time five independent schools are subject to pilot public benefit tests.  Undoubtedly the Charity Commission is practising, working out the best way of conducting an assessment of the extent to which independent schools act charitably according to the modern interpretation, and how they do it.  For the sector it is also a time of trial, and the experiences gained by those first schools will be shared so that, after the first wave, those inspected subsequently will know far better what to expect and where the crucial points of measurements will lie.

Some clarification is already emerging.  The use of school premises by outside community groups is at best a marginal contributor to public benefit.  Any outreach or loan of facilities that directly benefits children is rather more significant.  But the main point focus of attention will be the extent to which the school offers fee reductions and, above all, makes itself accessible to those on lower incomes: it seems likely that judgments will be made relative to the level of the school fee.  To be fair to the Commission, it is already suggesting that the amount of help given by school must be proportionate to its setting and to its ability to give help and that unreasonable expectations should not be raised.

So at present we are waiting and seeing: yet the process of giving significant financial help to children and families continues.  As the credit crunch bites, schools know that they will be having to find means of supporting children already in the school whose parents are affected by recession as well as working to continue that great and important work of bursary provision.  It could be argued, then, that the solution to the first challenge will also contribute to solving the second, though schools may experience so many calls on their bursary funds that fundraising, always difficult in adverse economic climate, will assume still greater importance while becoming an ever more challenging task week by week.

The public benefit question and the recession may be new phenomena in both nature and degree, but in nineteen years of independent school headship I begin to feel as if I have been through one difficult period after another and have been asked to outline the challenges facing the sector with monotonous regularity.  To some extent that goes with the territory. Education is not the easiest field in which to work: any activity concerned with people and their aspirations will be unpredictable; and dealing with children involves meeting both their needs and the demands of their parents.  So we shouldn't expect an easy life! 

But there are ways in which the sector seems almost to invite constant media speculation about the challenges it faces. Too often, perhaps, private schools appear to be on the defensive, trying too hard to justify themselves and perhaps proving too fearful of offending government or public opinion really to speak out stridently about what it contributes to the country and to its young people.

But it does contribute, and it should speak out.  Indeed, if the sector were more vociferous, it could also mitigate the effects on it of the economic slowdown.  For nothing succeeds like success, and the independent sector in UK education has a great deal of success to shout about.  The latest (2008) OECD survey of global education yet again putUKindependent schools at the very top: they are the best schools in the world.  Government was slow to acknowledge this, because the report also showed an alarming gap between the highest and lowest achievers in the country: sadly, it is in the nature of government to forego the good news in order to hide the bad.

Commentators ascribe the sector's success to its very independence.  Our schools can be free-spirited, entrepreneurial even: they can play to their strengths and tackle educational issues in ways that work best to them, free from government diktat.  This is powerful medicine indeed, and in its Academies programme (and in creating Foundation Trusts in the health service) government is tacitly acknowledging the importance of independence, of creating freestanding, self-governing institutions in order to achieve success.

Certainly independence works for us. There is not space here to describe how independent schools provide the lion's share of the students going on to "hard" degree course subjects: but we can be sure that it will be our students who dominate the leading professions in future, just as they do at present.  And while producing excellent exam results as the passport to top university courses, our sector also provides an incomparably broad, stimulating and fulfilling all-round education.  Sheer quality is something that parents will always seek for their children, even (or especially) in difficult times.  So today's challenge may yet be tomorrow's success story.



Tips for entrance exams and interviews

For Schools Advertiser

May 2008

It’s summer, so it must be that time of entrance examinations, interviews and all the pressures on children that interfere with enjoying the good weather!  It’s no joke for children or their parents to secure their place at the independent school of their choice, whatever the age at which they’re transferring.

In truth, it’s misleading nowadays to suggest that there is one particular season for school admissions processes.  Only the autumn, perhaps, is free of them, at least in the secondary phase.  Senior schools which admit at 11-plus will mostly have completed their selection process in January and February.  Common Entrance is in full swing for 13-plus entry during the summer months.  Those sixteen year-olds hoping to change school to a new sixth form may well have been through all their interviews and will be sitting on offers of places for September contingent on the GCSE grades they gain in the summer. So this article is perhaps best viewed as food for thought for 2009. 

Most schools have a two-stage process of selection; a formal written exam, to allow the school to make a assessment of applicants’ academic achievement to date; and an interview to allow the school to see how candidates compare in the flesh to the impression they gave of themselves on paper and to make a judgement of potential for the future.

Some schools may use only one of these processes.  Others may combine them, particularly at the younger end, so that children attend an assessment day at the school during which they meet the teachers, join in activities and have an enjoyable time, unaware of the extent to which they are being assessed along the way.

When it comes to written tests, candidates obviously need to be well prepared: it is the job of their current school to do that.  Parents sometimes become anxious that the school is not pushing their child sufficiently, or not preparing him/her specifically enough, for a forthcoming entrance exam.  There is quite a lot that mum or dad can do in terms of helping with revision, practising questions and checking understanding - just as they do with homework. 

Sometimes parents engage private tutors.  This can be helpful, though it makes me uncomfortable: I always feel that parents are already paying plenty in school fees and that additional private tutorial help should not be necessary.  Besides, are the parents asking too much of their child if they feel that extra help is necessary?  Is the entry standard of the chosen school unrealistically high for that child?  The question has to be asked and answered, if possible, with complete honesty by even the most ambitious parent. 

Most secondary schools with entry at age 11 set an entrance exam based on the old formula of English, maths and verbal reasoning/non-verbal reasoning/IQ test.  It’s easy enough for parents to help their children to practise these: WH Smith and similar stores seem to have an endless supply of books of these tests, and it is probably advantageous to children to have for the format before the day. A word of warning, though: the most selective schools are often on the lookout for children who they feel have been ‘over-prepared’. They pride themselves on spotting raw talent, rather than candidates who have been ‘hot-housed’.

Interviews come in all shapes and sizes.  There may be just a chat with the head.  They might involve some gruelling mental arithmetic or language tests.  If the interview is connected with an application for a scholarship, particularly one for music, sport or all-round talent, it might involve an audition, a trial or opportunity for candidates to demonstrate their particular gifts.

We can presume that a child trying for a music scholarship will be well rehearsed, playing the chosen pieces to a high standard; that the sports candidate is fit and in practice; that the applicant for an art scholarship brings a portfolio.  Similarly for a general interview, it is worth parents practising some mental arithmetic or reading out loud with their child.  Those are the predictable parts of the process.  What is harder to prepare for is the unpredictable.  Musicians will be asked to play or sing something at sight: athletes or artists may be asked to try a technique, sport or medium that is new to them.  It is on how they cope with the unfamiliar, with things that they are unprepared for, that the crucial judgements will be made. 

Schools are looking for potential more than previous achievement.  Thus, in general academic terms they are looking for interest and curiosity, not pat answers.  So when they’re talking about books, as they inevitably will, they want to hear children talking about their reading habits, and in depth about books that have really caught their imagination - not the one they read at school because they were told to!  They don’t want to hear, as I have too often, a boy professing earnestly that his favourite reading is the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Frankly, I don’t believe it. Nor am I am impressed to be told: ‘I used to play the violin, but I hadn’t got time for it with my homework.’

It’s the same with hobbies.  If girl tells me she is interested in ornithology, I’ll be deeply impressed if she speaks knowledgeably about where she goes birdwatching, the birds she can identify, any rarities she has come across and what reference books she uses.    If I quickly find out that the interest goes no further than watching the odd nature programme on the television, I lose interest.  And she loses out. 

What schools are looking for is a spark, a lively interest, an enquiring mind, a passion for learning, a readiness to be challenged and a willingness to stick at things. Those are the winning ingredients. Rehearsed answers and false claims are doomed to failure. It’s harsh, perhaps: but it’s true.



Discipline: a Headmaster’s view

For Schools Advertiser

March 2008

Behaviour.  Discipline.  These are two things all independent school heads are regularly asked about by prospective parents.  It's not surprising.  Behaviour in schools is a major national issue.  Politicians sound off about it; OFSTED reports on it; and headteachers up and down the land ask for the support of both in dealing with it - with, they usually feel, precious little response except criticism.  Newspapers make a meal of it: and, whenever a particularly shocking youth crime hits the headlines, commentators and MPs alike demand that schools do something about it.

Actually, parents usually ask about our schools, "What is discipline like?"  That is the right question.  The discipline, the sense of order and rightness in a school, is what determines the behaviour.  Politicians tend to focus on behaviour - as David Cameron did back in November, but I’ll return to him - and thus miss the point because behaviour is the symptom, not the cause.

After all these years, I suppose I should have a short, pat answer to the query, but I don't think I handle it well.  I always want to find out what lies behind the question.  Is the parent looking for a "strict" school (whatever one might mean by that)?  Or an easy-going one?  Does that parent remember with horror his own childhood in a repressive school?  Or has she been reading the horror stories in the press about the prevalence of bullying and violence inUKschools and is having nightmares about letting her offspring loose into such an environment?

In truth, British independent schools nowadays operate a pretty liberal regime.  Not laissez-faire, but liberal.  Good schools make their ethos (and their expectations of their pupils) clear, and for the most part trust their pupils to behave accordingly.  Children and their parents have a keen appreciation of what they are signing up to, so the consensus is strong and heavy-handed enforcement largely unnecessary.

That does not mean the trouble never happens, that bad behaviour never occurs.  Of course they do.  Young people push boundaries, test their parents and their teachers alike, and can sometimes get themselves mired in terrible difficulties whose consequences they never foresaw and cannot handle.  That inescapable fact has changed little through the ages!  Where infractions occur, trivial or serious, schools have to deal with them.  Where they can, they allow for redemption and forgiveness, because young people will make mistakes and get into mischief: that is part of growing up.  Sadly, on some occasions a line will have been crossed.  An unforgivable transgression - drug crime comes to mind - may require the school to put the interests of the whole school community above that of the individual culprit.  But if draconian action is needed - a temporary exclusion (suspension in old language) or even a permanent one (expulsion) - it will be applied strictly according to a published behaviour code, school rules, parental agreement, wherever the school chooses to print such information.  These are the sad and difficult times.  They are mercifully rare, and all the rarer if the school's ethos is understood and shared by all.

There you are: the very fact that I've got so quickly embroiled in the complexities of discipline and behaviour illustrates why I find it hard to answer the question, "What's your discipline like?"  It is an extraordinarily complex chain of interpersonal relationships, respect and mutual understanding that requires me either to enter into a lengthy explanation or (when I’m on good form) to say, simply but with justification, "We have very little trouble."

The statement is simple, but not simplistic.  That brings me back to David Cameron on the subject of discipline.  Setting out a new Conservative vision for education in November 2007 Cameron stated categorically that the way to maintain discipline in schools is to get kids to tuck their shirts in and to stand up when teachers enter the room.

It truly is more complicated than that, and Cameron did no one a good turn with that banal statement, certainly not schools, nor the children in them: desperately looking for an education agenda, the Tory leader started at the wrong end.  Tucked-in shirts may well be a symptom of a well-disciplined school, but they are not the cause: that form of discipline grows from a much deeper, more sophisticated ethos and has a lot to do with pupils’ self-discipline too.  And in 2008 children don't necessarily sit silently in orderly rows waiting to leap to their feet when the teacher arrives: for a start, it is generally considered good practice for the teacher, where possible, to get there first.

Actually, I'm rather proud that, in my school (a well-ordered one, I think), the teachers don't want their pupils to stand up for them.  When we discussed it we felt that mutual respect worked better – so, just as I open the door for students if I get there first, they do the same for me.  That's civilised, modelled adult behaviour, not ‘discipline’ in the sense of keeping children in their place. 

When children describe a school they love as great (or even cool !), they invariably talk of teachers who like them, trust them and believe in them; of a school that’s friendly and where they feel safe, valued and happy. Where they get opportunities to do things they weren’t even aware of; where they surprise themselves with what they find they can achieve. The discipline in such a school is based on mutual respect between children and teachers. Pupils feel valued as human beings, with dignity and worth accorded to them, and to the ideas and talents they can contribute: so they learn to treat each other with respect too.

That’s the sort of ethos we need in a 21st-Century school, and from it flows real, meaningful (self-)discipline and good behaviour too. So, parents, ask the question by all means: but think first what’s behind it, and what answer you’re really looking for.



Choosing A-level and GCSE subjects

For Schools Advertiser

November 2007

Interest, enjoyment, motivation.  These are the three crucial elements when it comes to helping your child choose GCSE or A-level subjects.  Choosing a subject because it is “useful” is probably the worst thing you and they can do.  Surprised?  Let me explain.

Choosing options for GCSE and A-level can be a stressful process for both children and their parents.  There is sometimes a feeling that there are particular subjects that they “ought to do”, that there is some intrinsic additional worth in them, even that they will look good in future on a CV.

That feeling is natural, but it must be fought!  A-level study, in particular, is a long haul.  After years of a busy, varied week following eight, nine, ten or more GCSE subjects, 16 year-olds find themselves following three, four or (rarely) five A levels. They embark on these subjects, some of which may be entirely new to them, in a degree of depth that is also unfamiliar, and the proportion of the week spent on each is naturally much greater. If they do not have an interest in the subject, enjoy studying it in depth or feel motivated to read around it in their own time, they will not thrive.  Indeed, the hours of work on it will seem long and hard indeed, and it is almost inconceivable that they will achieve much success at the end.  There has to be a passion, a fascination with the subject: there's simply too much work involved for what will otherwise be a long, hard grind.

This may make for tough choices.  For example, a girl who wants to be a doctor, who has the personal qualities of patience, empathy and thoroughness that may seem to equip her admirably for that profession but just hates Chemistry would be best advised to think of an alternative career.  To get into medical school she will need a top grade in A level Chemistry: the work involved is huge, however bright she is, and if she cannot work up a degree of interest in and commitment to the subject, it is highly unlikely that she will achieve the required grade -- so she won't get that place at medical school.

That example is extreme: but it illustrates three potential pitfalls.  First, schools have all too much experience of young people being pushed towards a career that a parent feels is good for them. If they are not personally committed to the goal, they are unlikely to achieve it: failure and disappointment are almost inevitable. 

Second, those choosing their A-levels with a view to a specialised university course and subsequent career need to check very carefully with their Careers and Higher Education advisers in school that they are choosing the right combination of A-levels to match them for the university course. 

Third, the would-be doctor described above might be tempted to scour medical school websites to find one that doesn't absolutely require Chemistry at A-level.  If she finds one (which, a few years ago, she might have done, but not now), she may decide still to aim for Medicine and pin her hopes on the one medical school that doesn't insist on Chemistry.  I can't stress enough how unwise a course of action that is: to have the best chance of winning a place on a competitive university course, candidates need to follow and excel in the mainstream qualification path, not an interesting backwater.

Those who take my advice and simply follow their interests and enthusiasms in choosing A-levels, perhaps with no real idea yet of a future university course or career, would always be well advised to check that, by dropping a particular subject, they are not closing off a particular career path in which they may have an interest.  Moreover, there is still sadly some snobbery at a number of top universities about “practical” or “creative” courses.  A boy who is talented in both Art and PE, for example, may well wish to include them among his A-level options.  But if he subsequently decides to read, say, History at a top university, he may encounter prejudice against him if he does not have a second “academic” subject among his A-levels. This kind of snobbery annoys me, as my use of quotation marks makes clear: but it does still happen from time to time.

At GCSE the stakes are less high.  Schools rightly insist that their pupils follow a broad core of subjects at GCSE, so they will be covering English, Maths, Science, generally a modern language and at least one of the Humanities (History, Geography, perhaps Religious Studies). As a result the remaining two or three subjects which they are at liberty to choose are unlikely to affect crucial life choices - though, once again, it’s always worth checking that with the Careers department.

So at GCSE boys and girls can choose subjects they enjoy, again a better criterion for choice in the long run than whether they are particularly good at them or regard some as being grander than others.  Talking to the subject teacher is a good idea, though parents and pupils alike should watch out for the empire-building teacher looking to recruit more candidates than the subject next door!

All this advice suggests that there really is a free choice.  In practice, many schools list subjects in “option blocks” and allow pupils to choose one subject from each block.  It is rare that this imposes any great restriction, because option blocks are based on common combinations of choices.  But if your child wants to choose a combination of subjects that is not available, it is always worth talking to the school.  It may have particular reasons for restricting some combinations, in which case it would be good to hear them - or you may need to flex your muscles as a fee-paying parent and demand a little more flexibility!

These are, after all, important life choices for your child: yet, as I hope I've explained, they are rarely crucial or irrevocable. So don't panic! Get all the advice you can from the school. And remember those three words before reaching a final decision together with your child: interest, enjoyment, motivation. If all three are present, you won't go far wrong.



Choosing your independent school 

For Schools Advertiser

May 2007

I haven't actually measured it, but it is indeed hard to imagine any part of the country except the most remote where there isn't an independent school within an hour's drive. For most people, there are several within reach, so you don’t have to go just for the nearest: there’s a real choice to be made.

It’s a tough choice! There is such an extraordinary variety of schools within the independent sector.  Junior and senior, either separate or as a combined all-through school.  But there are also single-sex and mixed schools; rural and urban, large and small schools; day schools, boarding schools and day-and-boarding schools; full boarding and weekly boarding schools; religious and non-denominational schools; selective, mildly selective or non-selective schools; schools specialising in all kinds of things, including particular Special Educational Needs.

All but a handful of independent schools belong to groupings or associations, so parents might get a clue of the kind of school they are looking at by seeing whether it belongs to HMC, GSA, SHMIS, IAPS, ISA -though those associations dislike being pigeonholed.  Members of HMC (Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ conference), for example, object to being typified in the press as all being like Harrow, while GSA (Girls’ Schools Association) schools all resemble Benenden to no greater extent than all prep school (IAPS) boys still wear caps and short trousers and have cold showers before breakfast. 

The fact is that all those associations would describe themselves as encompassing all types and sizes of schools.  So you need to read prospectuses, visit websites and, having identified a few schools that you think might suit, go and see them.  Have a good look round, during a normal school day (though open days and other staged events will give a flavour, they aren't the real thing), and insist on meeting the head

You’ll want to be sure that it’s a good school, so look at all the indicators you can.  Start with exam results.  How does that senior school perform at A level or GCSE?  How well does a junior school do in placing children in senior schools?  What sort of senior schools or universities do children go on to?  Look at league tables: these drive schools to distraction, because (as we heads constantly tell parents) they can be highly misleading.  But parents who are careful and well-informed can make intelligent use of them.  A highly selective city school should score very highly at A level: a non-selective rural school cannot be expected to compete on those terms.  So look at league table positions in the context of the type of school: a conversation with the head about how the brightest, the least able and average students in their school are expected to fare in exams might be particularly revealing. 

All independent schools nowadays tell parents that they are good academically but they are interested in developing the whole child.  So there is also a great emphasis on sporting, cultural and other extra-curricular activities.  How could it be otherwise?  That's what education is about.  But it's worth looking closely at those activities.  A school may say it is strong at sport and claim that its rugby team is unbeaten.  But it's worth checking out who its opponents are: developing sportsmen and women need to play tough fixtures, not gain easy wins. 

In both sport and the arts you need to ascertain how the school balances excellence and participation.  For example, your daughter may be an outstanding violinist, so you'll want to know that there will be opportunities for her to play challenging music at the high standard.  But her younger brother may not be interested in music: you'll probably be hoping that the school encourages beginners to give music a try, captures their interest and gives them experiences that they never dreamed of.  Ideally the school you will choose will have a “sport (or arts) for all” ethos and at the same time take those with significant talent to the highest level.

You will want to look at facilities.  Most schools have a mixture of old and new buildings, so you should look for quality in build, maintenance and equipment (not just the number of computers!).  If you're looking at a boarding school, you'll want to look very carefully at dormitories, bathrooms and dining facilities.

Above all, though, you are looking for a school whose pupils are happy and confident.  Talk to children who are pupils at the school. Are they keen to go to school in the morning?  Do they feel good about school and about themselves in relation to it?  Ask their parents, too, but be careful to judge whether they are looking for the same things for their children as you are for yours: aspirations and perceptions can differ widely.

No one can make the final decision for you.  But if you've done your homework, found the school that appears, from its literature and reputation, to be closest to what you want for your child; and if you've carefully carried out the quality checks described above, go in the end on gut instinct.  The school where both you and your child felt comfortable when you looked around, where people answered your questions openly, where there were happy, smiling children in evidence and a strong feeling of love, care, laughter and aiming high - that's the one for you, and you are unlikely to go far wrong.

Good luck!



School councils and citizenship

For PSHE and Citizenship Update

May 2001

This article draws on my 11 years’ experience as a secondary school head, during 10 of which we have had an active school council (our students prefer to call it the Student Council, perhaps a significant statement with regard to ownership).

There are three strands of the citizenship agenda into which the operation of a school council connects directly:

Active involvement


Rights and responsibilities

It is self-evident that, by taking a role in the school council, a student is getting actively involved in the school community.  It is, however, too easy for a school council to become absorbed in its own work, and lose touch with the student body as a whole.  The challenge is to ensure real reporting back.  In my own school, we have found that the role of the secretary (elected from among the council representatives) is vital.  After each weekly meeting, the secretary produces minutes which are duplicated and circulated via class registers. 

There is thus a high level of awareness of the student council and its work, and that work is on public display via the publication of minutes though I often wish that there were more active discussion within form/tutor groups. Where teachers do give time, in PSHE or other pastoral slots, to discussion of Council business, it is invariably fruitful.  Students are engaged in talking about real issues, of importance to them.  If a school council constantly works to keep in touch with its electorate, everyone is involved and the feeling of inclusion of all students is increased – the more so if students really feel that their council has the power to effect change. 

When the Council is truly enabled to effect change, individuals feel similarly empowered.  And as soon as the Council is able to start negotiating with the school leadership, discussion of students’ rights, and of the responsibilities that go with them, inevitably follows – again, a useful contribution to PSHE/ Citizenship Education.

Getting Started

My school council evolved and was certainly not designed.  Many mistakes could have been avoided if, ten years ago, there had been the wealth of advice that is available now.  I charted the first few years’ development in some doctoral research [published as Trafford 1997], and look back with a wry smile (now!) at some of the early errors.  I felt strongly that a student council was for the students so, having got it under way, I left them to it.  A Year 7 respondent to an early questionnaire commented, “All that happened was a bunch of sixth formers messing around as soon as Mr Trafford left the room”.  My leaving them to it, far from empowering the council, was achieving the opposite.  Our council now meets every week during assembly time in the sixth form library, probably the nicest room in the school, so time and place add status.  And I always attend. 

Our student council has no constitution, and few real rules, though now it operates largely by precedent.  It tends to be highly self-critical, and every year the elected chair and secretary agonise over its operation and devise various strategies for improving it – which usually work.    Currently four adults attend at council’s request; Head, Deputy, Bursar and one ‘ordinary’ teacher.  I fear that, in our eagerness to explain, we sometimes jump in too early and curtail discussion.  But I am confident that the council will spot the short-coming and rectify it. 

I have only ever limited scope for discussion in one area.  We agreed some years ago that we do not name individuals, whether students or members of staff:  there are other channels to follow much more discreetly (and they are).  I recently stopped discussion before an individual was named:  it turned out that the problem did not lie with a particular member of staff in any case: it was a question of how we administer first aid in the school, and the principle was dealt with in terms of procedures.


If a school council contributes actively to citizenship education in the areas listed above, the range of benefits it brings is much wider.  It

Teaches skills

Rewards active involvement

Promotes a sense of ownership of ‘our school’

Reduces disaffection

Improves child protection

Improves school


A school council does not become effective immediately.  The participants need to learn the skills of courteous debate, respecting other peoples’ views while arguing their case.  Thus listening and negotiating skills – qualities with significance far beyond the school council - are rapidly acquired and used - but only if true negotiation takes place. The great excitement when students first have a forum for their views can quickly be followed by frustration if they find that their thirst for change cannot be assuaged.  Some changes can take a long time to effect.  Where school councils fail to work effectively, it is most often because the school itself is not truly prepared to accept student demands for change.  A school council that is hedged about with limits, or does not feel that it has open access to the head or the ability to make a difference, will soon lose motivation and degenerate into bickering and cynicism.


If the council is effective, and given scope and clout, the ability to achieve real change is a great reward to all involved.  In a decade of watching my school council develop, I have watched students grow in confidence and self-esteem as they have taken on the responsibility of a council representative, learnt the skills and found that they really can affect their school and their education, for their own benefit and for that of others.  Because the existence of the school council makes a formal statement of the ability of students to take a significant degree of their school lives and learning, this air of confidence is not confined to the representatives: it is seen throughout the student body.

Students need to know they really have power.  Not over everything: limits of power and areas of operation have to be drawn.  Some schools give the council an annual budget, because money confers power.  There is learning experience in deciding how the money should be spent.  I shy away from this, because I fear the budget can make a statement:  ‘that is where your power begins – and ends’. 

If the council does not have its own budget, and has to make a case for expenditure, the school must be ready to respond.  Some of my council’s early demands were for things that involved considerable expenditure: it was agreed that the school should provide a good-sized locker for every student.  Lockers in themselves are not expensive, but the space in which to put them is!  It took us three or four years to reach a point at which every student had a big locker.  This protracted campaign proved that the more effort and determination students put in, the more they get out of it.  They were unhappy with the inadequate tuck shop: three years later a splendid one was included as part of a new build in the school.  They really did have to work for it – and the eventual reward was considerable.  And where things are unaffordable, good reasons have to be given.


The preceding examples also demonstrate the benefit of the sense of ownership that councils create.  Facilities or privileges that are argued and negotiated for are valued.  They become aspects of students’ school lives that are ‘real’ and important, something in which students have a real share.  In my school, discussion and negotiation on a regular basis in a student council that has high status have undoubtedly increased the sense of ‘our school’ amongst everyone.  Just as open and consultative management increases motivation amongst staff, an active school council which discusses real issues that are central to students’ lives increases their sense of ownership and their pride in their school  - because they have a say in what it does for them and what they do in it.

Disaffection Reduced

The more students have a sense of ownership, the more they feel they belong to the school.    The more that they are involved in the planning and decision making, the less they will feel that education is simply something that is done to them.  This sense of belonging has a powerful effect of reducing levels of disaffection: an important piece of research linking school democracy and reduced disaffection [Davies 1998] found:

‘ councils or circle time as being a significant part of  the raft of measures that a school takes to promote a sense of ownership and therefore inclusion in a school… a school council may be one of the more cost-effective ways of incorporation and of recognition of pupil potential.’

Increased Protection for Children

When my school was developing a child protection policy for the first time, we received the following guidance:

Children are safer when

They feel safe and valued.

They are encouraged to talk and be listened to.

There is a range of appropriate adults whom they should feel confident to approach if in difficulties.

We were able to feel secure that those three criteria were met, and contributed to very strongly by having a well-established student council.  One of the council’s lasting achievements has been to devise a framework of counselling provision, with counsellors from within and outside the school easily available to students.

School Improvement

My experience (and that of other writers and researchers) is that students are very responsible in their deliberations, and that most suggestions or requests are genuinely for the benefit of all and the better running of the institution: purely selfish requests are rare.  The thirst really is to make things better for everyone, and school councils thus make a powerful contribution to the overall thrust for school improvement.  Of course the benefits listed above naturally make for a happier and more effective school, and the more confident and effective a council becomes, the more that improvement feeds on itself.  When writing up my research after five years of watching the student council develop, I asked students and teachers who had been in the school throughout that time to give their views of the changes.  These are just a few:

There is less racism and bullying now.

Staff are happier, kids are happier.

Liberality, less stuffy atmosphere, diversity, room for experimentation, more of a feeling of ‘our school’.

Most students feel that they will be listened to by most members of staff.

It is a good deal more democratic than my previous school I am not afraid to voice my opinion … from day one I have felt free to speak openly and complain if necessary.

It makes for security all round. 

Students can feel that if they have got a serious grudge or problem they can say something.  Also for staff …

Everyone feels valued, they work together and learn.


If citizenship is really about all of life (and it is), then the practical exercise and experience of democracy through a school council is an essential part of that life.  And, I must add, working with an active student council is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.



Davies, L      (1998)  School councils and pupil exclusions Research project report, Professor Lynn Davies, Centre for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham

Trafford, B   (1997)  Participation, power-sharing and school improvement  Nottingham, Educational Heretics Press


Independents, independence and partnership


For Education Journal

June 1999

Schools in the UK encompass a huge variety of types and sizes:  the comparatively small independent sector caters for only some seven per cent of the school population, yet encompasses a diversity out of proportion, perhaps, to its size. My three colleagues who write in this feature, heads of three very different independent schools, amply demonstrate this rich variety.  However, while not everyone will share their strongly held opinions about their particular type of school, their article make it clear that they are working towards the same goals for their pupils as all schools do.

Diversity of style, yet a common purpose.  In a decade which has seen British schools pushed to ever greater uniformity of curriculum and procedure, it seems to me more vital than it has ever been that the independent sector should preserve and strengthen its heterogeneous nature. Why? Do I feel a need to justify the existence and role of the independent sector?  Well, maybe I do. I am head of an independent school.  These are purely personal views, and my opinions are no less instinctive or coloured by my own experience than anyone else’s.  But I don’t think I’m parochial or defensive in outlook. 

I am proud to be an elected representative for independent schools in SHA:  in this role I naturally come up against issues and attitudes which could all too easily cause division, rather than co-operation, between the sectors.  Indeed, even the government-instigated independent/state school partnership initiative - whose working party recently produced the excellent report Building bridges - runs the same risk (despite the warmth with which it has been acclaimed in most quarters) since the very concept of state- and privately-funded schools working together leads into very sensitive issues of resourcing, access and the obvious inequalities that exist between them.

Stereotyping is another danger.  Reading some sections of the press, one might be persuaded that the independent sector has all the answers with regard to high expectations and setting standards of achievement and discipline, while maintained schools are floundering along behind.  That view is as extreme and unreasoned as that which claims that only state schools - and comprehensive ones at that - exist in the real world and that independent schools persist merely to perpetuate snobbery and social division in the country.

So how does one tread this tightrope?  Carefully, I hope, and honestly! When I meet my colleagues from the maintained sector and discuss funding, I am frequently ashamed.  Not ashamed that I run an independent school, with the immediate assumption of generous resourcing that many parents scrimp and save to finance, resourcing which is not profligate but sufficient to furnish all the things that a school might reasonably aspire to provide; but ashamed that our society seems willing to accept the contradiction that the private sector funds education at that right and proper level while refusing to face up to the true cost of doing it properly for all children.  And I am made still more uncomfortable when I see how harried those same colleagues are by the unceasing tide of paperwork and new initiatives from government, and the continuing threats of simplistic league tables and hostile inspection.

So let me come to the point.  I cannot be unique in being worried by many aspects of education today and still more by a number of spectres of the future.  I fear that the unceasing drive for rapid change in UK education puts us in danger of creating a monolithic and inflexible structure which, despite the rhetoric, threatens to stifle all innovation and experiment except that which is imposed from the centre:  in that climate, schools which retain the independence and the courage to be different, and to cater for a variety of different needs and skills and aspirations, will continue to provide a vital extra dimension.  I think a party-political obsession with market forces, tax levels and vote-catching risks causing education to remain for the foreseeable future a pawn in social and political power games, and an under-funded one at that.   This will leave the whole of the education system, not merely the maintained sector, under continuing pressure:  an independent sector which is less pushed from one swift change to another and less bound by regulation will have a crucial role to play in encouraging experimentation and innovation and sharing information about good practice.

Building bridges is a valuable pointer to the way in which the two sectors can - I would say, must - share expertise, enthusiasm and educational mission in order to ensure a positive future for all our schoolchildren.  The partnership scheme is a good start, though limited to some extent by its ‘bidding’ nature:  the bidding culture is already exhausting maintained schools and has come as something of a shock to independent schools who are new to it.  But the scheme serves to highlight the enormous potential that exists in independent/state school collaboration. 

OK, I’ll come clean.  We independents are privileged. Diversity and independence are precious qualities.  For that reason I feel that the sector has a duty, whatever curricular or fiscal pressures are brought to bear on it,  to maintain its independence and to use it to contribute to educational thinking and practice in the nation as a whole. As long as they resist any temptation to retreat into ivory towers, real or imaginary, reaching out instead to share what they can, independent schools will demonstrate that they have indeed a vital and integral role to play, and the whole of UK education will benefit from it.