Tim Hands explains why you should choose an independent school

Independent School Parent, 13/09/13, Dr Tim Hands, Chairman of HMC and Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford explains why you should choose an independent school.

My family seems always to have had a respect for education. It also seems always to have seen education and the state as closely linked.

This goes back a long way. My grandparents met at night school, one of their ancestors having been schoolmaster on board Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in Napoleonic times. My parents met when they were teaching in a state school and my father went on to become headmaster of one of the country’s largest comprehensives. My sister, being bright, won a scholarship to an independent school, then spent all her life teaching in the state sector. Being not anywhere near as bright, I didn’t get such a scholarship; so it was the state sector for me.

A much better education

Many years later, I found myself as a lecturer at Oxford. I had wonderful accommodation – it was free – and wonderful food – also free. The salary, on the other hand, was, shall we say, nothing to write home about. I wanted to get married, and the state sector wouldn’t have me, as I didn’t have a post-graduate certificate in teacher training. So, I took a job in the independent sector. The job was at The King’s School in Canterbury – the country’s oldest school.

I’ve never forgotten walking past the cathedral, through a passage known as The Dark Entry, while reading on my second day an account of how new pupils were settling in. I was astonished at the quality of care. I couldn’t believe the difference between this independent school and the school I had attended as a boy. Indeed, my chief daily pleasure is knowing that I’m able to offer to the children in my charge a much better education than I experienced myself.

So what are the chief things that an independent school has to offer? First, I’d pick out the emphasis on pastoral care. Since the 1980s, successive governments have been obsessed with raising academic standards. By contrast, the independent schools that I’ve worked in have all had the same principle: first let us ensure that your child is happy; only then might we have some chance of ensuring their success. Inside the state sector, the long interfering arm of government has denied teachers the opportunity to be respected for such pastoral commitment.

Sport, drama and cheese clubs

Second, all the schools I’ve worked in have emphasised the importance of extra-curricular activity: sport, music, drama and a host of other things – my current school even has a Cheese Club. Alas, the industrial unrest of the late 1970s removed the emphasis on extra-curricular activity in state schools. If the First World War was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the 1966 World Cup was won on the school playing fields of East Ham. But the battle for pupils in the state sector to have first rate educational opportunities is now a lost one, in East Ham and in most other places, reducing the capacity for extra-curricular activity to develop personality and raise self-esteem.

The last reason for choosing an independent school is the easiest to measure. It is the academic results. At A-level in 2012, 18% of entries from independent schools gained an A* grade (compared to a national average of 8%). At GCSE, it is even more marked, with 31% of independent entries gaining an A* compared to a national average of 7%. Parents may be seduced by league table positions and success rates at top universities but what is at least as important academically is that, because independent schools are not bound by the National Curriculum, teachers have the luxury of being able to teach beyond the syllabus. At my current school, our practical expression of this is an extended research project for all Lower Sixth pupils, which is known as Waynflete Studies, (named after William of Waynflete, founder of the College). Pupils begin the year with lectures and gradually choose a title to research, finally submitting a 5,000-word essay. It doesn’t get them any qualification – that indeed is the point. They have acquired something invaluable, something beyond any government-imposed metric.

Schools for “toffs”?

Many people view independent schools as “toff schools”. They aren’t. What many independent school parents want is what’s best for their children. They just value education over an expensive holiday, an expensive car, or an expensive house.

British education is famous the world over. “In my opinion,” the historian Niall Ferguson remarked in the recent BBC Reith lectures “the best institutions in the British Isles today are the independent schools.” We live in an age when state interference is high. Long may independent schools continue to express their principles, turning the children of today into the happy, successful adults of tomorrow.

Read the full article © Independent School Parent.