We’re going to play a game.
Think of a private school. What do you see? Ancient buildings, acres of playing fields, a car park stuffed with Range Rovers?
Now, think of a pupil from one of those schools. Immaculately turned out, healthy tan (it’s the skiing, you know), pony at home and an air of entitlement?
Finally, think of the head of the school…..privately educated, Oxbridge (history) graduate, gravitas, and a certain ‘manner’ which comes from dealing with the very wealthy?
Ok, you can open your eyes. You know, as well as I do, that these images are not a true representation of reality.
First, lots of private schools are tiny operations; the average size of an ISC school is around 200 pupils. Many are based in the centre of cities and towns and they can be significant local employers. Others face significant challenges every day in resource management: those ancient buildings so beloved of photographers can be cripplingly expensive to maintain and use. Many independent schools do not have any such buildings. The majority of independent schools do not have pots of cash stacked away in the bank- like most families, including those in their own community, their income and outgoings are a pretty close match with little left over at the end of the month.
Then, the students. They come from all cultures, backgrounds and circumstances, and have a diversity reflective of their local communities. They are not entitled- many are acutely aware of the sacrifices their families are making to pay fees from their (already taxed) salaries. They don’t jet off on holiday at the drop of a hat and they don’t dress head to toe in designer gear. They are just kids, with the same worries and joys as any others.
Finally, the head. Yes, some of us were privately educated, and some are Oxbridge graduates, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. But many of us are neither of these things- as with our students, there is a rich diversity in our leaders and teachers too.
In much the same way as gender stereotypes are sometimes highlighted by asking people to imagine a doctor, firefighter or secretary, asking you to imagine an independent school, its pupils and staff is a way of highlighting the deeply ingrained, and often inaccurate, beliefs about the nature of our communities.
These stereotypes are particularly damaging when their repetition contributes towards preventing those who we aim to support with our partnership work and bursary schemes from accessing us. When perception becomes reality, and the image perpetuated of our schools is one which suggests we are aloof, unwelcoming places, then it is perhaps no surprise that families with no experience of independent education would think twice about approaching us.
The work that we do, therefore, in partnership with our local communities, the maintained sector and our families is vital in helping to break down the stereotypes in the same way as dialogue about gender stereotypes leads to a greater understanding of one another, and a better deal for everyone. It’s important to remember that, in the same way that no two students are the same, neither are any two schools. The partnerships we forge are as diverse as we are. Stereotypes of all kinds work by reducing a group to a set of one-dimensional cliches, but we can dismantle them by seeking to understand one another better. In the words of my own school’s campaign, we are reassuringly normal!
We want to help to support government in its aspirations for all young people. We welcome an open and honest dialogue about what is- and isn’t- achievable for our schools with the new Secretary of State for education. But this is a two-way process and requires listening, as well as talking, on both sides.
Let’s get past the stereotypes and move forwards.