Opinion

Independent schools want to engage with state schools but red tape abounds



Tom Hicks was thrilled when his son had the chance to play in a local under-7 football tournament. But then bureaucracy showed the red card…

As a kid, there was little that got the blood stirring more than the anticipation of a sports tournament. It would start the night before: you would lay out your kit and dream up extravagant set-piece moves that never saw the light of day. We never won, but no matter. It really was the taking part that counted.

Imagine my delight when the local prep school invited all the local primary schools to take part in an under-7 football tournament. My eldest son loves football and, while he is no Lionel Messi, the thought of watching him in his first “proper” tournament stirred memories of my own dreams of glory.

As a teacher at the prep school, my wife prompted our son’s state school to organise a team to play on its magnificent pitches. There were to be no winners or trophies, just nigh-on 100 local kids enjoying fresh air, recreation and team spirit. Awesome.

How wrong we were. Apparently, any trip that involves pupils going off site requires a fully-fledged teacher to accompany them. So while the school saw this was a good opportunity, it told us that all the teachers were busy that day. Absolutely right, we thought, you should be busy teaching the children. No matter, several parents, already DBS-checked (presumably for this sort of eventuality), put themselves forward for the day.

But no. Volunteers are not qualified for this. We now find ourselves in a quandary. If we can’t persuade the school, or the local authority, to allow the team to be taken by willing volunteers, we may have to remove the children from the school for the afternoon, incurring several unauthorised absences and causing a headache for the headteacher. I believe that only four schools are to take part, from 15 invited.

I posed this dilemma to a colleague in another independent school who, it turned out, had seen a similar thing: in this case, four primary schools had been approached with the offer of free, after-school coaching with two Olympic sportspeople, and not one positive response had come back. I wonder if the parents had even been informed of the opportunity. If I was a parent with a child in one of those schools, I’d have been apopleptic.

This seems bang-your-head-on-the-table crazy. As an experienced teacher in private schools, I have seen what a positive impact sport can have on young children, yet as a parent of two in state education, I am flummoxed by the red tape that seems to be denying the chance for independent schools to offer the outreach so badly needed in a society increasingly polarised between the haves and the have-nots.

Independent schools are desperate to reach out

Of course I understand the need for watertight child protection and safeguarding. Yet if a DBS-checked, safeguarding-trained group of parents (one of them a teacher) with parental permission and a risk assessment can’t scoot a mile down the road with their five sons for a kick-around attended by St John’s Ambulance, I’m not sure the world hasn’t got just a little paranoid.

Mitigating risk is vital, and every person involved in education must understand that, as even one child falling through that safety net into physical danger or being exposed to predatory influences is a tragedy. However, an equal tragedy would be to sacrifice the chance for cross-sector collaboration and the wellbeing (and sheer fun) of young people on the altar of bureaucratic anxiety.

I don’t blame my son’s teachers, I think the school is great. But the machine needs fixing somehow. Independent schools are desperate to reach out (their future survival depends on it) and state schools should be biting their arms off to take these opportunities.

I am gutted my lad and his mates won’t be able to show off their double-dummy, rainbow-flick free-kick routine. But if it has exposed a flaw in the system that we can change for the better, then I’ll take that as a win.

Tom Hicks is housemaster and head of group boarding at Wellington College



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6 Comments

  1. Kevin Quigley

    Interesting that this has been masked as a “what independent schools can do for state schools” feature. This specific instance has nothing to do with this, but rather to do with safeguarding legislation and interpretation of that legislation which all state schools (and, I thought, private schools) have to abide by – for good reason.

    If private schools are desperate to reach out to state schools it is because they are now required to retain their charity status, and all the benefits that brings. But here’s the thing. Collaboration is a two way street. Perhaps private schools should be reaching out to state schools and asking if they can send their staff to visit and pick up some ideas, and, maybe, some safeguarding training? Or sending their pupils to work with state school pupils? Too often, private-state collaboration is based around “come and use our swimming pools/pitches/labs etc”. This is not collaboration or “offer(ing) the outreach so badly needed in a society increasingly polarised between the haves and the have-nots”. No, this is recruitment.

    I have no doubt there are many excellent teachers in the private sector, but let’s not pretend that outstanding facilities corresponds with excellent teaching. It does not. There are far more excellent teachers and examples of good teaching in the state sector.

  2. The poor kids from the state schools get to see the “magnificent” pitches of the local prep school and learn an early lesson that those with the cash can buy privilege that they will never have. Safeguarding may play a part in the decision of state Headteachers to avoid this offer, but I doubt it.

  3. Mark Watson

    It’s attitudes like some of the above which can unfortunately caricaturise those involved in the maintained sector as having such chips on their shoulders.

    What astounding arrogance to say “we have absolutely nothing to learn from them”. Every single great teacher and head I’ve met knows they can learn from anybody and everybody. I don’t think public school teachers are better than state school teachers, I think they’re teaching in a different environment and I think it makes sense to share best practice wherever it comes from.

    To that end I entirely agree with the points Kevin Quigley has made above about there being proper collaboration rather than a “come and use our facilities” approach. Teachers from both state and private schools could learn a lot from each other.

    How shortsighted it is to take the attitude that you wouldn’t expose kids to other schools’ facilities because in your mind they could never have that privilege. How about inspiring children? How about that if they mix with those children from the prep school they’ll find that yes, some of their fathers are Lord Fauntleroy but some of them come from ‘normal’ families. Talk about adopting the “I know my place” approach.

    • Tom Hicks

      Thanks for the responses to the piece. From my point of view, yes it is very important that collaboration is not seen as a ‘crumbs from the master’s table’ point of view.Piecemeal, set-piece events are not especially effective and indeed can entrench polarised views on either side of the independent/state fence.

      From the teaching and learning angle, sharing of good pedagogy, wherever it is found, is vital and all good teachers will have an open-minded approach to their own and their school’s practices. On the sport side of things, we have to accept that given the status quo, for independent schools to open the gates to schools without equivalent facilities is a first step to a more level playing field (pardon the pun), but the field will only be levelled if the children are allowed to take part. Cutting your nose off to spite your face seems small-minded and not in the young people’s interest. Not that I feel this was my son’s Head’s view, in fact.

      It is also a bleak and cynical view of independent schools’ outlook (not to mention human nature) if outreach programmes are seen as being driven purely from a position of protecting charitable status. I could cite dozens of examples of collaboration driven by the sheer enthusiasm and selflessness of the teachers and students, from radio broadcasts, reading to younger children to learning latin.

      I’d certainly be happy to hear more suggestions as to how cross-sector projects could be established to benefit young people in all areas.