State vs private – please stop the stereotyping!


After having to endure recent documentaries on both state and private school life, our headteacher diarist is fed up of seeing stereotypes entrenched and reinforced by the mainstream media.

Recently, my family has made me endure two television documentaries – Educating Yorkshire and Harrow.

Both now having come to an end, these two contrasting series about secondary school life were, for any teacher, “buttock-clenching”, as we watched the all too familiar trials and tribulations of daily school life emerging.

I fear that society has a stereotypical and simplistic view of education that is doing those of us who work in the state sector no favours.

Taken together, the programmes contrived to give the false simplistic message: private school good, state school bad.

Harrow: A Very British School took a gentle, whimsical look at the traditions of this elite, £30,000-a-year, all-boys public school with numerous references to famous alumni, including former prime minister Sir Winston Churchill and actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

The episode I watched saw an eloquent 6th-former direct his fellow classmates in a 1920s farce, The Rebellious Tarquin, with public school boys in drag (no stereotypes here!) performing in the 400-seat theatre aided by a professional choreographer. The not-so-subtle message was that these boys are born to lead, direct and take charge.

Contrast this to Educating Yorkshire that follows, like Harrow, a year in the life of a school, this time a state school near Dewsbury in Yorkshire.

The episode I watched followed the understandable “meltdown” of a year 10 boy, whose sudden bereavement of his stepbrother is followed by a series of insults, confrontation and aggression.

The sympathetic, gentle reassurances of a variety of excellent staff are remarkable and testament to the skills that a number of staff use on a daily basis. 

However, the programme does not have any contrast and in this episode we also follow the lesson by lesson disruption caused by a year 7 boy. The message is clear: state schools are a daily trial with learning disrupted, staff challenged, students’ behaviour a worry and teacher frustration high.

What I want is balance. I want to follow the students who are going to get A*s, bursting with energy, pride and intelligence.

In my school there is so much to see, the debating society (yes, a state school has one), the school council, the rock orchestra, the cookery group – all of this could be shared with the audience, rather than the constant stream of negative incidents that is shown.

I am sure Harrow has students like those profiled in Educating Yorkshire. Show the full range and don’t simply pander to the stereotype. God forbid Michael Gove is watching these programmes – he’ll have us state schools doing CSEs and Foundation Learning while the “important schools” get on with the intelligent stuff.

I sincerely hope that I am not being too cynical when I fear that state education is being undermined and undervalued by an aggressive media campaign that has included:

  • Policy changes announced through newspaper articles in the favoured right wing press.

  • Derogative and emotive headlines that have seen school leaders being branded as “liars” and “cheats”.

  • Stereotypical television programming that appeals to the reality audience and only serves to cement prejudiced images of our state school system.

Please can we celebrate the fantastic work that so many dedicated staff and students do in all schools in all sectors on a daily, weekly, termly and annual basis?

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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