Why choose an independent school?

Independent School Parent, Spring 2015, HMC member Ben Vessey, headmaster of Canford School explains the value of a private education in and out of the classroom

I recently met up with some old school friends, a number of whom I had not seen since we left in 1987. The five of us all came from very different backgrounds and we all attended an academically high- achieving day school in the 1980s where fees were low, assisted places were available and the socio-economic mix was wide and varied. Two of us had attended prep schools and three had come straight from primary schools. Ironically, four of us have ended up working in education, albeit having had other careers first.

A strong platform

As we reminisced, it became clear very quickly that we had all taken a great deal from our experiences in that part of our educational journey, which had helped to set us up for our lives thereafter. The environment we were in gave us a strong aspirational streak, an ingrained sense of competitiveness, the strength to stand up to challenges and a desire to seek out opportunities even where they were not immediately apparent.

As we exchanged stories, we saw that those seven years had taught us much and, without realising it then, or indeed since in a truly defined form, the broad-based learning we were exposed to in that independent educational setting gave us an extremely robust platform from which to leap into life beyond school.

Life is a canvas

My educational philosophy stems from an unlikely source and is inspired by the words of Danny Kaye, the American actor, who said: “Life is a great big canvas, throw all the paint you can at it.” To my mind these words perfectly sum up in every sense the ethos and approach which sits at the heart of independent education.

It is crucial that the educational journey of every child offers as many open doors as possible so that he or she can step through, explore and either step back and find another door to pass through or travel further on the path which lies beyond the doors they have chosen.

These openings must provide the academic avenues one would expect in a school setting but also the intellectual, creative, physical, spiritual and moral dimensions which are integral to the high quality co-curricular programmes on which independent schools strive to deliver.

I use the word co-curricular rather than extra-curricular quite deliberately as, for me, these broader experiences beyond the examined academic programme are fundamental to education and constitute many of the more exciting shades of paint which one might wish to throw on the canvas that is life.

The bigger puzzle

Another theme which emerged from our reunion chat, and again which is something very much at the heart of my own educational ethos, was an understanding of how the impact of our learning in one context was so interwoven with what unfolded in other aspects of our educational and broader life experience.

It was readily apparent that the passion and discipline from our subject-based academic studies had formed a central pillar of our learning but alongside this our involvement in sport, CCF, theatre, music and so much more had shaped our characters and our lives.

All of these individual educational aspects had been parts of a bigger inter-connected puzzle. It is crucial that everyone understands the reality that what a pupil learns in one context always has an impact on what they learn elsewhere – whether that be in the classroom, in the theatre, in the music school, on the games field, in the debating chamber or out on Dartmoor. Used wisely this understanding can be life changing.

Intellectual challenge

Last summer, my speech day address began with the following words: “A few short weeks ago, I was sitting on the floor of the theatre stage in a plastic tent watching one of the A-level drama performances. That 15 minute of ‘physical theatre’ touched every nerve ending. Underpinning that effervescent performance by our Upper Sixth pupils were months of focus, intellectual challenge, planning and teamwork combined with the organisational, motivational and presentational confidence to get the performance to the end result.

I would challenge anyone to shadow that educational process and still say that drama A level is not demanding and does not develop essential skills for life.”

I know for a fact that some of those I watched in that performance had flourished significantly in the broader academic and co-curricular contexts because their learning was not one-dimensional but part of a connected and coherent whole. They were also much more fulfilled and ready to tackle the challenges and embrace the opportunities of life beyond school.

Breaking boundaries

In independent schools the combination of such a range of experiences generates a culture that not only culminates in a high level of exam success, but in a genuine passion for subjects studied and a curiosity well beyond the confines of any syllabus. Ensuring a balanced and meaningful blend of academic, co-curricular and pastoral opportunities for our pupils is vital.

While achieving the highest possible standards in academic and intellectual pursuits remains fundamental, what is learnt beyond the classroom is equally central for life. This is something independent schools weave into the fabric of their culture and practise vigorously. The benefits to our pupils and the quality of the outcomes are there for all to see.

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