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Climbing Trees

Last week I had the dubious pleasure of being part of a group of Head Teachers addressed by the formidable Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of Ofsted. 
 
My suspicions were aroused by his introductory comments characterising himself as a plain speaking and direct man; whilst familiar with a fair amount of plain speaking through immersion in South Yorkshire culture, I have usually found that people who begin their speeches in this way do so as a pre-emptive justification for outright rudeness.  The BBC journalist described the atmosphere as ‘frosty’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24367150); I would have chosen a more robust adjective.


Sir Michael embarked upon a long, ritualised and largely anticipated attack upon independent schools characterising them as beacons of elitism isolated from the rest of society.  Aware that Sir Michael’s true audience perhaps lay in the press corps, and the headlines to be garnered the following day, rather than in the gathered ranks of Head Teachers, we listened patiently as the fruits of our working lives were disparaged in a display of seemingly wilful ignorance.  Independent schools are, of course, non-profit making charities which educate more than 7% of children in England (and more than 18% of students over the age of 16) at no cost to the public purse, a welcome contribution given the parlous state of the national finances (for statistics see http://www.isc.co.uk/research).  Birkdale belongs to a Head Masters’ association called HMC (Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference rather than the Honda Motor Company).  In the schools belonging to this grouping (http://www.hmc.org.uk/), more than 35% of pupils receive help with fees, promoting social mobility and social diversity, whilst the proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities is 24%, a higher proportion than the average for state-maintained schools.  Sir Michael seemed simply unaware of the huge number of partnerships, of all types, between independent schools and their state-maintained counterparts and between independent schools and a vast range of community groups.  Choosing just 2 examples of the latter, at Birkdale, for example, we have weekend links with the Sheffield Music Academy (http://www.themusicacademy.eu/) which offers music services to young people from across Sheffield and with South Yorkshire Fencing (http://www.southyorkshirefencing.co.uk/), part of an Olympic Legacy project to offer high-quality coaching to support performance excellence at a national level and engage young people in physical activity.  Cricket and football clubs, university activities, church groups, city orchestras, chess competitions and many more all use school facilities; as a charity, Birkdale is delighted to help the surrounding community and there is no sense of isolation. 
 
What really caught my attention however was Sir Michael’s bold declaration that the real measure of a school’s success was the examination results of its students; good GCSE results alone led students to successful careers and the country to prosper.  In an extraordinary sentence he appeared to characterise all other school endeavours, in derisory fashion, as ‘climbing trees’.  This seemed a strange choice of phrase as most parents from whatever background (and Head Teachers) would regard tree climbing as an important activity; fresh air, physical activity, a different viewpoint, an awareness of the natural world and the fostering of risk-taking in a controlled environment all seem admirable benefits.  Perhaps Sir Michael had suffered a traumatic experience in childhood leaving him unable to embrace arboreal ascents.  In a moment of abrupt insight I understood why, in some schools, students are entered for GCSE Mathematics up to seven times, using various examination boards and different sittings in a, sometimes, vain attempt to ensure that they clear the crucial ‘C/D’ grade borderline and regardless of the stress imposed on often emotionally fragile adolescents.  (See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2399510/GCSE-pupils-exam-SEVEN-times-year-schools-try-boost-league-table-position.html or http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/Education/MemoSelectCommitteeGCSEMultipleEntryFinal.pdf for a more measured account). In an environment in which only grades matter, the emotional, spiritual and pastoral needs of a young person can be simply ignored; in the Wilshaw model of a school as a production line with students as the willing or unwilling raw materials to be processed into compliant and economically useful citizens, character, extra-curricular interests and other attributes which cannot be assessed and graded are of no value.  Not even Ofsted itself would subscribe to this view with maintained-sector schools graded in the areas of ‘the achievement of pupils at the school’, ‘the quality of teaching in the school’, ‘the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school’, ‘the quality of leadership in, and management of, the school’.  There is also a requirement for inspectors to consider ‘the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils at the school’.  As I listened and reflected I wondered whether Sir Michael was only aware of the first of these categories and had simply stopped reading his own inspection framework at that point.  (Independent schools such as Birkdale are inspected regularly using a similar framework but are free from the narrow view of education espoused by Ofsted’s chief.)
 
Examination results at both GCSE and A level are, of course, crucially important as they enable students to gain access to prestigious universities.  There is, however, no reason why high academic achievement cannot be combined with broad character development and wide extra-curricular interests and above all with real concern for the emotional and spiritual health of the student.  These are not exclusive alternatives but complementary accomplishments.  Whilst good grades certainly help one to gain a first job, further career progression seems to me to rely on abilities in areas such as communication, empathy, team-work, leadership and resilience; these skills are best learned outside of the confines of academic lessons.  Last year’s U6 students gained the best A level results Birkdale School has yet seen with 60% of all entries rewarded with A or A* grades and the students in receipt of bursaries doing particularly well.  Many of these excellent grades were achieved in traditional subjects preferred by the leading universities; lots of the students are now studying for university degrees in one of the government’s Strategically Important and Vulnerable (SIV) subjects such as Modern Foreign Languages or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM subjects).  The students managed this as well as playing a wide selection of musical instruments, pursuing sporting excellence in a huge variety of disciplines, tackling the Gold Duke of Edinburgh Scheme, reflecting on the big spiritual and moral questions of life, raising money for charities and looking after each other.  I profoundly disagree with Sir Michael Wilshaw’s educational philosophy and I shall continue to use my time, energy and resources and those of Birkdale School to develop young people of all social backgrounds in every possible way. 

‘Climbing trees’ will remain on the curriculum at Birkdale.

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