Stop this needless point-scoring

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford

Even today, we still pitch state against independent. Dr Bernard Trafford says we should be focusing on how the sectors can work together

In the 37 years since I started teaching (25 of those as a head), many things have changed. Chalk has been replaced by smart boards and screens, we have a national curriculum, and sadly we also have a remarkably hostile regime of targets, monitoring and control, unimaginable when I started out in 1978.

But some things don't change. Take the playground spat. When required to sort out inter-student conflict, we must as ever seek the truth, Solomon-like, between contradictory claims. "He said..." "I never did!" Thus we battle on.

It's disappointing, however, when government and the media start behaving in that way, as happened recently. It started with the Daily Telegraph trumpeting that state schools are now outperforming independents. A comparison of the top 500 state and independent schools used A level points scores (a curious measure, since selector universities require particular grades rather than points), claimed to show state schools doing better in total.

Government loved it. A Department for Education spokesman couldn't resist crowing: time was, they said, when the state sector needed to learn from the private.

Reaction was swift. Fighting his corner, the Independent Schools Council's redoubtable chairman, Barnaby Lenon, observed that the top of the exam league tables is dominated by independents: moreover, the state schools identified as outscoring the independent sector come from that minority (158) of highly selective state grammar schools.

Let's just unpack this, calmly. At the top end of both sectors (in terms of exam results and league tables) lie highly selective schools. The highest-scoring state grammars, for the most part situated within the M25 bubble alongside their strongest independent rivals, attract 10 or more applicants for every place, a ratio that I suspect even the most selective independent schools (given the price-tag and a host of other factors) can only dream of.

The overwhelming majority of maintained secondary schools, whether or not academies, are non-selective. They're truly comprehensive.

We could embark on endless debates about the advantages that independently educated pupils start with – not least the family's ability to pay and, by implication, the value it places on education.

Nonetheless the vast majority of independent schools don't select: like their non-selective state counterparts they do an excellent job with whoever turns up. Moreover, the independent sector, with considerable justification, sets great store by the vast amount of financial support given to boys and girls in the form of bursaries, not least in order to avoid becoming the exclusive preserve of the rich.

Above all, for the sake of the country's children, it is not the differences that we should be stressing, but the similarities and the opportunities we create to make joint cause.

I'm trustee and board member of an organisation called SCHOOLS NorthEast. With a professional secretariat, it is run by heads for heads. Heads of every school type across our region – primary, secondary, free schools, independent, special – get together around one table. Currently our hope is (after years of trying) to persuade government to back a Great North Challenge following the pattern of the successful London Challenge.

That represents real joint working, and real mutual respect. The sectors don't need to score points off one another, and it seems to me that, when either media or government tries, we do best to ignore them and withdraw from the debate.
All our schools are at their best when we work together.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School. The views expressed here are personal. Find him on Twitter @bernardtrafford


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