The mainstream media seem to like nothing better than stereotyping and sensationalism. The teaching unions’ conferences in the Easter holidays inevitably generate headlines designed to shock and alarm. This year the media focused on strikes, censure of Michael Gove and his many reforms, and the idea of refusing to co-operate with Ofsted.
During this conference period, state schools (and academies) are frequently characterised as rather wild places where teachers are often assaulted, pupils are pre-occupied with “sexting” and online pornography, and standards of education are generally low. Such stark caricatures hardly reflect what happens in most secondary schools.
At the opposite end of the media spectrum, all independent schools are portrayed as being like Eton, Winchester or Westminster, all of which are very wealthy schools with boarding pupils and hardly typical of the sector.
Last term, a magazine journalist wrote a very good article about what our school is really like, about the mix of pupils, their community action and the school’s partnerships and community engagement. It had a great title – “The school that likes to give”. However, it was buried in the middle of the prep school section, far into the magazine after pages of adverts.
On the front cover was a picture of a famous independent school which has a particularly grand historic building (we don’t, we have a standard Victorian school building with numerous later additions on our current site – no glamour involved!) and the leading article occupying the first few pages comprised profiles of the most influential independent school heads and, naturally, I was not among them!
Recently, I have shown a number of different visitors around our school. For some it was the first time that they had ever set foot in an independent school. They were astonished. The classrooms were just like classrooms in most state schools, although rather more rooms from the Victorian era and 1930s than have survived in state schools today.
The pupils chatted and laughed as they walked around the corridors and no-one curtsied or tugged a forelock as we passed by.
Various visitors remarked on how normal the pupils and staff seemed and were surprised at the fact that we have so many pupils from different ethnic backgrounds, not to mention a variety of London accents.
The only areas which struck them as different were our extensive grounds (which we share with nearby schools) and our amazing indoor sports facilities: pool, fitness suites, dance studios and climbing wall. But then, as I pointed out, we run a community sports centre with some 5,000 local members as well as hosting seven local schools, and some people pay commercial fees to rent our facilities, which enables others to use them at minimal cost and provides the funds to purchase up-to-date equipment.
We have plans to build a community music centre in our school grounds soon which will operate in a similar way, although with a greater focus on the local community’s, especially young people’s, needs. We are certainly not an elitist “ivory tower”.
Do people really believe what they read about schools in the newspapers, online, or hear on the radio or television? I hope not and I think not.
A recent poll listed teachers as the second most trusted group after family doctors, with more than 70 per cent of the respondents having trust in us. Politicians scored much less favourably, as did journalists and bankers, but all eclipsed the estate agents who achieved only 13 per cent!
The vast majority of parents are very happy with the school which their own child attends and do not believe that it is anything like the ones caricatured in media headlines. It would be great if all articles and newscasts about schools, teachers and education were completely accurate, but then where would be the sensationalism? Good news apparently does not sell papers or excite readers, viewers and listeners. I wonder if this has ever been put to the test?
Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.