I went to a private school. There, I've said it. I went on a whacking great scholarship which still left my parents stretched. Both of them came from financially tough backgrounds, and went to state schools, and have subsequently pursued successful and (largely) happy careers in that same state education sector. Both of them are also, for what it's worth, pretty well to the left of me on most issues. It begs the question why on earth they decided to go without things that their friends enjoyed, just so their son could run the risk of turning into a toff.
The answer is very simple. They did it because they put parental principles over political ones. They thought I had potential (time will tell) and that I deserved the best, and they didn't see the local state system, however beloved they were of its ideology, however hard they themselves both worked to improve it, delivering that. At times I know they've felt guilty about their decision, and I know, too, that certain so-called friends have made them feel more so. For the record, I'm also well aware (as are they) that even with the huge scholarship and the huger sacrifices, what they paid is still out of the reach of most.
Since graduating, I have followed my parents in working exclusively within state education, although unlike them I don't do the really difficult and important job of teaching. Every day I believe more and more (and from a high start-point) in the tremendous value of what the college I work at does, and of the wider system. Unlike some colleagues, I don't want to see private schools abolished, because I believe in parental choice (and I also reckon that trying to abolish them would be more faff than it's worth). What I'd love to see is a state education sector so brilliant that no-one wants to head private.
It was with real interest, therefore, that I read Michael Gove's latest speech. In it, the Education Secretary argued for the breaking down of the "Berlin Wall" between state and private schools, and for the former to learn from the latter. As I read, and at distinct odds with many commentators who've written about the speech, I found myself agreeing with lots of what Gove said.
There is no question in my mind (and experience) that private schools have lots to share with the state sector. The focus on the individual is something which I benefited from hugely at school - when there was a tendency to be lazy (as I sometimes was) or naughty (ditto), those one-to-one relationships helped hugely, and we know from research that the same is true anywhere. Similarly, the relentless focus on standards has stayed with me and helped me in future education and employment - though I'm not sure Gove is right to link this to assessment, of which I arguably experienced less in an independent school than I would have elsewhere. (Rather, it's about personal standards, and not just of written work.) I also think, though this won't necessarily win me much support, that there are strong arguments in favour of more flexible school days and in fact of boarding. If nothing else, spending my spotty-sweaty-hairy-grumpy teenage years cooped up with a lot of other spotty-sweaty-hairy-grumpy boys has made me appreciate my parents a lot more, and means that I went through said spotty-sweaty-hairy-grumpy days with others in the exact same boat. And I agree word for word with Gove on the importance of extra-curricular activities, which in far too many schools of my first-hand experience are tokenistic at best. I probably got more from clubs and choirs than from any class.
There were, though, two glaring omissions from the speech. The first was any suggestion that private schools might learn from their state peers as well as vice versa. For one thing, state schools still (unless they're 'free') need to employ qualified teachers - something from which private schools could learn a good deal. (Even at thirteen, I realised that some of my teachers needed training like houses need roofs.) Independent schools could also have their minds opened to non-academic pathways counting for something - I still remember my teacher's look of horror when I suggested bypassing university for the Navy, though that might have been to do with my weight. This aside from the obvious areas of community engagement, social diversity, curriculum breadth and others where state schools and colleges arguably have the edge.
The second big hole, for me, was a genuine acknowledgement that what private schools really have over state schools is money. It is funds which are largely responsible for better resources, smaller classes, longer days - all the things which many state schools are probably desperate for, but simply can't afford on existing budgets. Gove's statement about protecting school spending doesn't scratch the surface of the disparity: the schools he appears to consider the best (one of which is my own alma mater) have in the region of six times the per-pupil funding of the state school next door.
State education in this country is not, despite the phenomenal work of millions of phenomenal teachers, anywhere near perfect, but nor is the independent side. For a truly energetic and effective system, best practice needs to be shared across the so-called Berlin Wall, but in both directions. As long, though, as either is bitter about the other's resources, that'll be hard to do. If, therefore, Michael Gove's speech is a serious indication that he's about to improve funding, then that is the really good news. I wait for confirmation with expectant breath, but I won't hold it...