It has been fascinating to watch the debate take off this week following Tristram Hunt’s announcement about Labour’s expectations of private schools’ partnerships with state schools.
One of the defining problems in the British education system is the distance that exists between phases and sectors. Secondary teachers can mistrust primary colleagues (“They’re not really Level 5 are they?); state teachers can resent teachers in the independent sector (“Of course their results are great. Look at their facilities! And they’re selective!”); mainstream colleagues can patronise special school teachers (“Ah, you must be so patient.” *Cocks head to one side and wrinkles nose up*).
On the face of it the challenge might seem a difficult one as it seems that meaningful and lasting collaboration between any two schools is difficult to achieve and takes commitment from both sides. However, up and down the land there are examples of independent schools and state schools working together for mutual benefit. Barnaby Lenon’s fatuous remark on the Today programme yesterday about Mr Chips popping down to the history department of the local comprehensive was singularly unhelpful. The relationships that I’m aware of are not parasitic; they are based on a sense of equality and of shared expertise. It’s not about the use of someone else’s playing fields.
My colleagues and I from Carwarden House have worked hard to build a solid partnership with Wellington College that work is really starting to pay off. Both schools are at the extremities of the educational continuum in England. 7% of all children in England are privately educated and 1.1% of all children go to a special school. We appear poles apart but the reality is that our schools, whilst looking superficially different, have much in common, share the same values and are ultimately trying to achieve the same things.
Our partnership started with the recruitment of one of the senior teachers at Wellington to our governing body as a parent governor. We hosted a Wellington teacher for three weeks teaching at Carwarden House as part of their PGCE. I have delivered a speech at one of their chapel services. We have made use of Wellington’s facilities for a governing body strategy meeting and hold our annual Prize-Giving Evening at Wellington College. All good, but not a Carwarden student working with a Wellington student in sight. If our partnership was to have any real strength it needed children to be involved.
This is where Ed Venables and Maria Ramsay come in. Ed is the Housemaster of The Stanley and an Old Wellingtonian and Maria teaches sixth formers at Carwarden House. Each week a group of students from each school meet on Wednesday afternoons; last half-term at Wellington, currently at Carwarden House. Ed and Maria have created an inspiring set-up that is now led by the students. The staff involved are conscious that the world view of our students could be broadened considerably by spending time getting to know others they would not naturally gravitate towards.
The students are all now good friends and are getting to know each other really well. The Carwarden House students met the Wellington students off the bus today, shook them by the hand and got on with their afternoon. Any hesitation or trepidation that may have understandably existed initially is now long gone. As Ed said today, “When the students are together there is no sense of sector – they are simply teenagers.”
A couple of weeks ago Maria and I were kindly invited to an assembly at The Stanley where the students involved in the partnership explained their learning to the rest of the boarding house. The students had taken the time to learn more about autism, Fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome. A common refrain was, “I’m learning more from him than he is from me.” This is precisely the kind of outcome I’m looking for. The social confidence of my students is rocketing and I can see such maturity, fun, sensitivity and creativity in the Wellington students.
Ed and I discussed this afternoon the progress the students have made so far. It is very hard to quantify and I’m not sure that I even need to. Much of the dividend of this work will never be seen. It may manifest itself in the career choice of one of the students after university; it may make such a profound impression on them that in years to come they become the governor of a special school as is the case for our exceptional Chair Antony Power. It may be the boost one of my students needs to their social confidence that they manage better in the workplace. It might convince them that they can make lasting friendships with people that they think are different from themselves.
When I was 15 I spent some time finding out about life in the army. I met another student there who asked me what school I went to.
“Brakenhale,” I replied.
“I’ve never heard of that school. I go to Pangbourne College.”
“It’s a comprehensive in Bracknell,” I said.
“I spent a day in a comprehensive once. It was horrible.”
At the very least that kind of conversation is not going to be repeated with the students who spend Wednesday afternoons working, laughing and joking together. They are simply teenagers.
Follow Maria Ramsay @MariaRamsay2
Follow Ed Venables and The Stanley @WellyStanley
Follow Carwarden House @CarwardenHouse
Follow Antony Power @AntonyPowerMM