Alex Massie

The Frippery of a Rounded Education

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Chris Woodhead, the former head of the schools inspectorate in England and Wales, argues that many private schools are, to all intents and purposes, ripping off their clients. The Telegraph observes that he has an interest to declare, but:

Prof Woodhead is the chairman of Cognita, which owns a chain of profitmaking private schools and has purchased four charitable schools.

He said running schools as businesses reduced "waste" – such as luxurious sporting facilities and theatres – as fees were kept low to attract parents. "We are absolutely rigorous in not providing frills and frippery, but concentrating on what seems to us to matter most, namely the quality of teaching. I am deeply shocked by the degree of waste within the independent sector. I don't think that the fees do need to go up in the way that they do go up all the time and I think that many independent schools are locked into a competition to provide ever more five-star facilities which actually have no education benefit at all."

Well, this is nonsense. Or rather, Woodhead's complaint - or, perhaps, observation - merely shows that the education market is working. There's no reason why every private school should strive to offer exactly the same facilities or experiences as other schools. Indeed, the whole point of a private education market is to provide parents with choices most suitable for their children. If some parents want a "no frills" approach, then fine; if others want a "five star" approach across the board then, well, that's fine too.

But Woodhead's argument also reflects a desperately narrow view of education and one that, while it may be in vogue with bureacrats and government ministers, runs contrary to the ethos of most private schools I've ever had any dealings with. The public (ie, private) schools take a more rounded, even holistic (to use a rather terrible term) view of education. Yes, exam results and league tables matter but they're not the sole means of measuring a school's worth and, in my experience, they're not the sole criterion used by prospective parents.

The very facilities that Woodhead says are "waste"  - sports and arts  - are actually two of the areas that many parents and pupils alike find most attractive about private schools. Equally, sporting and artistic endeavours - to say nothing of institutions such as the Combined Cadet Force, community service, religious observation etc etc - play an important, even vital, role in the public school experience. In many ways they are just as important as the quality of teaching in the classroom.

But that's because education isn't a conveyer-belt to deliver pupils to the job market but rather a process of intellectual, cultural and social development in which every child is given the greatest opportunity to find their niche. If that means orchestras and drama or mountaineering expeditions to Peru and rugby tours to South Africa then so be it. 

Indeed, looking back upon my own school days and what stands out is not so much the qulity of the teaching (though some of that was excellent) but the trips to St Petersburg and Rome, the house and school plays, the extra-curricular readers' and writers' circles, long summer nights on the golf course or the cricket field, visits to the opera in Glasgow... and so on and so on. In other words, being exposed to a wide range of activity, not all of which had any obviously measurable impact upon the quality of the academic education one received but which, to one extent or another, were vital  - and happy! - elements of the boarding school experience.

It's true that when I was at school, the place had changed less since the 1950s than it has in the 16 years since I left. The new boarding houses do feel like mid-range hotels. But that investment has come because parents demanded it. Those who had experienced boarding school themselves didn't much mind that we lived in spartan, freezing houses; those parents who had not quite reasonably demanded that their children be able to live in rather more modern conditions.

There's nothing wrong with a "no frills" approach to private schooling and doubtless there are schools that outperform their more expensive rivals, but in general terms you get what you pay for. The question of what suits a given child is up to parents themselves of course.

Still, it's dismally instructive that Woodhead, the man formerly charged with monitoring standards in English state schools, should consider sport and the arts as expensive "fripperies". This is the sort of thinking that leads to government ministers bemoaning the study of history or other "useless" subjects. (Not just government ministers: I recall having a fierce argument with a newspaper editor some years ago over the future of Greek in Scottish state schools. My suggestion that we might run an editorial condemning the proposal to no longer offer Greek Standard Grade exams was not received terribly warmly.) 

But if you don't offer Greek anywhere in the system, or you don't offer pupils the chance to express themselves - and learn! - on the sports field or in the theatre or music school then you're doing them a disservice and, in the longer term, failing society itself.

The horror is that so many pupils never get the chance to develope their talents in these areas and yet we're quite prepared to let that miserable status quo endure. The question isn't whether too many private schools are spending too much on facilities, but why the state sector - in general terms, since obviously there are many fine state schools - cannot take as broad a definition of what education actually constitutes?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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