STOP KNOCKING INDEPENDENT EDUCATION – Dr Stephen Winkley, headmaster of Rossall School, Lancashire.

25 Feb 2013

The headmaster of one of the north of England’s leading public schools has hit out at sectors of national media for questioning the relevance of independent education and criticised some parents for lacking ambition on behalf of their children by not taking advantage of free places offered by private schools.

Dr Stephen Winkley, a former Chairman of the Boarding Schools’ Association and now headmaster of Lancashire’s Rossall School, was particularly saddened to hear of two teachers from independent schools leaving the UK because of the constant criticism in the media of private education. Commenting in an open communication to parents of children at his school, Dr Winkley condemned parents in the wider community for their lack of imagination and lack of knowledge of the excellent work undertaken by independent schools, which is of benefit to children of all social backgrounds.

Dr Winkley’s comments in full:
“I have no trouble getting my blood boiling when reading silly articles about University access and independent school privilege. David Aronovitch, writing in the Times recently, refused to sympathise with the two ladies who have abandoned good independent schools in this country to go and work in Switzerland. Vicky Tuck and Frances King, at the top of their profession, claimed that they were fed up with having to defend their schools and themselves against the whole monstrous elitism charge. Despite this, Aronovitch, in his article, was refusing to be sympathetic and then went on to spout the traditional statistics of 7% of children being privately educated and getting disproportionate numbers of places at good Universities, blah, blah.
“The subject is much more complicated than a mere problem of numbers. We are often told that British Independent schooling is the best in the world (incidentally, it brings significant overseas revenue to the UK from foreign parents wishing the best education for their children), but as an Englishman the thing I’m proudest of in our country is not the armed forces, the cricket team, the sense of history, or the quality of our independent education but the National Health Service. The NHS is an amazing, comprehensive, socially undifferentiated service, run by hugely dedicated and committed people and it is loved by millions of us. It’s so good we don’t really need private institutions to provide health care. However, in education we do need the private sector.

“There is a significant difference in the two goods which are being proposed for our consumption—-health and education. And the problem with the education discussion is that it is always conducted by people who are themselves the product of and committed to the value of education. But the brutal fact about our great country is that while everybody wants and needs the NHS, Education is not universally seen as good or desirable. For millions of people in this country, many of whom (incidentally) could afford an independent school, Education is not of itself a desirable goal. As a consequence, where would an ordinary young person learn that education was good for them? Perhaps not in the home nowadays, as one might expect. So, where are the role models who can teach the young that it’s good to do well at school and good to aspire to go to a University and meet like-minded people and develop in ways which are going to be satisfying and even profitable? The aspiration isn’t there, and it isn’t clear where it is going to come from. The popular view (encouraged during 13 years of Labour government) now seems to be that educated people are Toffs, education is expensive, and would we not all prefer to be the heroes of Big Brother or the X-Factor!

An example of the indifference of some parents, and their lack of aspiration and imagination was experienced last year at my own school, when we spent quite a lot of money advertising three full-fee scholarships to children interested in Science and Maths. National newspaper advertisements were booked, at considerable expense, yet we had not a single response. And, I know of other independent schools where they really struggle to find candidates for free places: it sounds crazy because it is crazy.

Finland decided in 1992 to be a knowledge economy. Knowing things, they believed, was the best currency. Within twenty years they have transformed their society so that education is a major good, a highly desirable possession, and the brightest and best in Finland can become teachers!

Instead of constantly rearranging the deckchairs on the expensive platform of the English curriculum and the examination system, Her Majesty’s Government would do well to move back a step and ask themselves: how are they going to make the outcomes of good education as desirable as the good outcomes of the NHS?

As for Aronovich, I and other headmasters in the independent sector can manage without his sympathy. We run wonderful schools, we love running them, we have independence and freedom, the children are rewarding, many of the parents are decent folk, and we know we are making a difference to the lives of children, many of whom cannot afford the fees. So I would ask certain media commentators to stop knocking independent schools and look instead at the benefits they deliver to children of parents who are not elitist, or Toffs but have experienced in the education of their children the type of successful outcomes we all seem happy to praise in the NHS.

Rossall School