- Published: Thursday, 25 September 2014 15:32
I talk to a huge number of prospective parents at this time of year as families ponder the choice of secondary schools for their sons and daughters to enter next September. I usually have the opportunity to dispel at least one myth about Birkdale and perhaps about independent schools in general; below is the complete set of unwarranted misconceptions that recur regularly.
Myth 1: Poor Social Mix. Many people feel that independent schools are full of children from affluent and privileged backgrounds and they worry either that their own child will be shunned by wealthier pupils or that their son or daughter will be robbed of the chance to mix with students from a wide range of backgrounds. The reality is that Birkdale has pupils from a diverse mix of backgrounds with many parents making significant financial sacrifices. A large bursary programme further widens the social mix and makes a real contribution to social mobility. I am sure that there will be many state schools within the UK where there is actually less of a social mix than at Birkdale as parents must pay a premium on their house price to afford to live in the catchment area of the best schools.
Myth 2: Bursaries are Hard to Obtain. As with most other independent schools Birkdale offers scholarships to reduce the fees for students who show exceptional aptitude for academic, musical or sporting activities. A much larger number of students benefit from our bursary programme which offers fee reductions to an amount determined by the parental income. As a charity, Birkdale is pleased to help students, who would benefit from the kind of education we offer, to join us regardless of financial circumstances.
Myth 3: Lack of Local Friends. Some families worry that their son or daughter will be disadvantaged by moving to a different school to their local friends, particularly as they start Year 7. Whilst quite understandable it is normally the case that boys end up with the best of both worlds having made new friends at Birkdale but still finding time to keep up with local friends in the evenings and weekends.
Myth 4: Pressure. Some parents look at Birkdale’s fantastic examination results and worry that there will be a great deal of pressure on the pupils. Whilst we do believe in hard work as a means of making the most of talents, Birkdale is about all-round education and we attach much emphasis to pastoral care and to extra-curricular activities, neither of which appear in a league table! A great deal of time is spent ensuring that the students feel secure and happy and encouraging them to be confident in trying new things. Sport, music, drama and outward bound pursuits are all extremely popular and ensure that the students get a break from academic work. The school encourages pupils to have high aspirations, but these are based around identifying realistic targets for each pupil and offering them support and encouragement to achieve them. I regularly meet with groups of students to understand their experiences of Birkdale; they tell me that they enjoy the lessons and are very positive about their relationships with the teachers.
Myth 5: Regulation. I am sometimes told that independent schools are unregulated and in some way deficient. In fact Birkdale is subject to many of the same regulations as a state school (academy or not) and is regularly inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. This body is every bit as rigorous as OFSTED but happily is free of the politicisation, fads and aggression often displayed by the latter. Birkdale does however have great freedom with regard to curriculum; this allows the teachers considerable license to use their professional judgement to explore topics and activities that they feel will interest and develop their students, unconstrained by the often suffocating national curriculum.
Myth 6: Independent Schools are ‘Not in the Real World’; some parents worry that independent schools are far removed from normal everyday life. The students I see each day seem very much in touch with normal life and they are clearly extremely well-prepared for the future not only through achieving good examination results but also in terms of being able to relate to other people and to be confident and well-rounded individuals with wide extra-curricular interests. I am delighted that so many pupils participate in music, drama, sports of all types and in a huge variety of smaller scale clubs which teach the ‘soft’ skills so necessary for success in employment and in wider life.
The best advice I can give to parents as they come to choose a school for their offspring is to visit the school and talk to the people; no amount of data is a substitute for the stories of the students.