A teaching tip for Tristram Hunt and all politicians

I think I’m quite unusual in believing that most politicians go into politics to do something worthwhile for the people they represent and not for selfish reasons. Yes, as in every walk of life, individuals make mistakes and go astray; there are myriad examples of this in recent times among the political class but also going back as far as you care to look. Power corrupts or, at least, it can. Equally, there are many hard working, effective, politicians and others in public life who demonstrate integrity and leadership in the service of others. Our local MP, Damian Green, is one such person. He happens to be a Conservative but my point is not party political. I see Damian working hard to improve the lives of the people in his constituency most obviously by attending hundreds of events every year and talking with thousands of people to properly understand their concerns and needs. It’s not glamorous work and it’s not even particularly well paid. He is but one example. We, you and I, spend far too much time deriding politics and politicians on the basis on the drivel fed to us by the media (even the BBC).

I believe Tristram Hunt (shadow Education Secretary) is also genuine in his desire to improve education in England. His latest pronouncement is that charitable fee paying schools do not do enough to warrant the tax breaks they receive and he wants us to do more to support state education. He has threatened to remove the business rates subsidy that charities such as Ashford School receive if he gets into power. He also argues that schools like mine are now only affordable to uber-wealthy and/or foreign parents and therefore should not be supported by the UK government. I invite him to visit Ashford School and talk with my parents about his definition of uber-rich.

For the moment, I’ll ignore the simple, plain facts about the net benefit of schools like mine in terms of the wealth created in the local area by a turnover of nearly £15M, the inward draw to the borough of having an outstanding independent school in the town, the direct employment provided for nearly 300 people by the school and the saving to the tax-payer in not having to provide and pay for over 800 extra school and nursery places in the local area at roughly £3-£4M annually.

I accept and welcome, have always accepted and welcomed, as have most of my colleagues in the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference that our duty is to educate the pupils in our schools and to make a positive contribution to the community in which the school sits as far as we are reasonably able. This, surely, is the duty of any school because it demonstrates one of the long standing “British” values, that others’ needs come before our own; selflessness. Of course, it’s not exclusively a British value or even Western. In this respect, Tristrum Hunt and before him Michael Wilshaw, Michael Gove, Andrew Adonis et al are trying to teach me and my colleagues to suck eggs. That’s fine. I like eggs and I am always happy to consider learning a different sucking technique.

So, the discussion is not about the principle but rather the mechanism. Some HMC Heads rightly retort that they are already doing a great deal not just in terms of promoting social mobility by providing bursaries such as at King Edward’s School, Birmingham and not merely in terms of providing access to facilities (though this might be vital for the local partner school and as much as the independent school is able to do given its means). Is it not surprising that when the very existence of our schools is under attack Heads feel they have to defend what we do?

Much more important is to state clearly why we do what we do. It is not to demonstrate to inspectors, the Charity Commission, politicians, the media or government that we are “doing our bit”. It’s because working in partnership with others to support the education of young people is at the heart of our purpose. Ashford School actively supports Wye School, a competitor down the road, because it adds a diversity and quality to education in the area; we have become a National Teaching School because that allows us to formalise and enhance the work we do in training new teachers and working alongside other schools, such as Rye Studio School, to raise standards and aspirations. Most influential of all is the work we do with the other 50 or so schools across England which are part of United Learning in leadership training and bespoke support in areas such as the Early Years Foundation Stage.

We do these things because they are part of our DNA. We are driven by a desire to make a difference to the opportunities for all children. We do these things not because we have to but because we want to and because of the benefits they bring to everyone involved. No amount of berating by Tristram Hunt or anyone else will change this. Nor should it.

Tristram Hunt is playing politics in the run up to an election. I understand that. The other parties are playing the same game to curry favour and popularism. It’s a shame it has to be this way and it’s a shame that some politicians repeat the same mistakes generation after generation. It’s why many people are so cynical about their motivations.

Instead of berating independent schools and thereby making them defensive in their responses would it not be more intelligent and effective to recognise the exceptional quality and contribution of many of those schools and get alongside them to get more out of them?

Tristram Hunt is asking independent schools to work in partnership with with state schools. He is pushing at a door that has been open for centuries. A little tip, Tristram; the best way of teaching something is to model what it looks like.

By Mike Buchanan, Headmaster, Ashford School