Private schools – setting the record straight

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Marion Gibbs is endlessly frustrated by the exaggerated stereotypes and prejudices that her school faces because it is in the private sector. After another such encounter this week, she tries to set the record straight.

Since becoming a headteacher in the independent sector many years ago, I have been determined to work in partnership with local state schools and other community groups and to ensure that our students leave school ready to be active citizens who are prepared to “roll up their sleeves” and get involved in order to make a difference for the better for others.

I see our school as a community resource. Our swimming pool and sports facilities are used weekly by seven state schools and before and after school and at the weekends and during holidays by 5,000 members of the local community who have joined our sports club.

If you visit us on a Saturday in term time you will find the place buzzing with activities, not just of the sporting kind. 

Some 500 young people from a whole range of local schools come to JAGS for group and individual music and drama lessons organised by JASSPA, our Saturday School for the Performing Arts, while 45 year 3 pupils from 11 nearby primary schools, who find reading, writing or speaking challenging, attend a special Saturday Literacy School where they each have a year 10 or 11 JAGS student as a personal mentor, as well as being taught in a small group by a specialist tutor. I could write at length about our many other activities, but will refrain.

However, it is in the context of these that I was amazed by the incredulous response of a maintained school governor whom I met recently at an event in the city.

He obviously believed that independent schools were self-interested institutions which did not look outwards and that their only connection with the state-maintained sector might be to sponsor an academy, an activity for which they might not be well-equipped. Such is the power of the media.

We can collaborate across the sectors in endless innovative ways and have a genuine concern for the good of all students in our area, but this is of no consequence, as it does not resonate with any flagship government policies or with the general public’s preconceptions and prejudices. 

My conversation with this gentleman moved on to the topic of school assemblies and I mentioned that I try to encourage all our students to reflect on their conduct at the end of each day and to consider whether they have done or said anything unkind (and if so how they can remedy it) and how they might strive to improve in future.

So far this term in my assemblies we have been considering our fundamental values, care, courtesy and consideration, kindness, willingness to give freely to others in every way and how those such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King are the true role-models, not D-list celebrities who are regarded as “cool” for a brief moment. Once more it appeared that I was saying something completely revolutionary and unexpected. Surely our school is just an academic hot-house which only cares about examination results?

I find it rather depressing that exaggerated “public school” stereotypes have such a strong hold on people’s perceptions. The vast majority of independent schools in this country are not wealthy and filled with the highly privileged upper classes or wealthy overseas boarders.

Many of us are day schools situated in towns and cities whose population we serve, often providing a substantial number of bursaries including free places (in our case we currently provide 114 such places).

I am sure that not every state-maintained school is identical to that depicted in the current television series Educating Yorkshire, so please believe me when I say that not every independent school resembles Eton or Harrow, who receive so much media coverage (albeit often a caricature which ignores much of what they do).

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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