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24 Feb 2015


Keeping Faith?


Ten years ago, one seldom heard the term ‘faith school’. Come to that, fifteen years ago the words ‘Muslim’, ‘Islamist’ and ‘Jihadist’ were not common in everyday parlance. Even a year ago, few would have imagined that Coptic Christians would have been murdered because they were Christian. Or that Jews could be murdered in a Paris supermarket or a Copenhagen street because of their faith.


Suddenly, we can’t escape religion and the things done in its name.


The effect of this is – as much as anything – to make us aware of difference. I am one of these, you are one of those.


Whereas this country has striven for decades to value difference and even celebrate it – with obvious heinous lapses and misguided attempts at maintaining separateness now, largely discredited – it now seems urgent that we foster what we have in common and celebrate what unites us rather than what divides us.


More children than ever are now being taught in ‘faith schools’. The number of such schools is increasing and many schools – Roman Catholic schools, in particular, fuelled by the burgeoning population of Polish families among others – are expanding to take in larger numbers. There are Jewish schools and Muslim schools – or de facto Muslim schools, as we have found in some of our conurbations.


Many such schools are excellent. Results are good, discipline exemplary. Parents and pupils are happy. But such schools are – in essence – divisive. Our friends are from families like ours. Our community is one defined by a shared faith. We are different from people who go to schools founded on a different faith or on no faith at all.


A confident, mature society is one in which we trust each other. We know our neighbours and trust people who look different, dress differently, have different customs. In an anxious, threatened society, we close our doors, are friends only with people like us, shut our minds to people whose ways of life are not ours.


Is it time to reconsider our increasingly segregated schools and to ask ourselves whether the young people they produce are prepared for the open, pluralist society most of us believe in?


04 Feb 2015


The Best School?


“We want the best school for our children.” I hear this from new clients every day. It is little use my explaining that the best school for one child may not be the best school for a different child. The ‘best’ school in the minds of many of the people who call us is the one with the best results, the one which sends the largest numbers of leavers to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and the like.


I explain to these people that a school which selects at 11 or 13 the children who perform most impressively in their very exacting, carefully tuned and expensively commissioned entrance tests will have very little to do thereafter. These children learn fast, like learning and have fierce intellectual curiosity. True, such schools can employ outstanding academics who will stimulate and fire their sparky pupils but these pupils will achieve highly because they have the aptitude and the motivation.


They would, in all probability score highly wherever they went to school.


The fact of their attending St Plodge or Witmaster will not make them cleverer. In some cases, if they are not mini Hawkings or small Turings, it might make them stupider. This is because, children of less than outstanding ability can quickly lose confidence when surrounded by people whose brains work faster than the Large Hadron Collider and absorb more than a J-cloth. They become demoralised, switch off and drop out.


Conversely, sending bright children to good schools where they will be enabled to maximise their strengths, minimise their weaknesses and shine in some aspects of the curriculum will enhance their confidence and allow them, in many cases, to perform beyond expectations. Such a school will be the ‘best’ school for them even if its results and the number of Oxbridge entrants it achieves do not, at face value, look so impressive.


This may be hard for some parents to accept but it is true and derived from thirty-five years’ experience working with parents and with schools to find the best schools for each, important, child.


As we say:

Your child – nothing matters more.


21 Jan 2015


We’re terribly sorry, Mrs Romanov, but….


It had to happen. The last five years have seen an unprecedented surge in numbers of pupils from overseas coming to our boarding schools.


We Were Glad


Russian, Spanish, Chinese and children from the UAE in particular have found beds, desks and happiness in our turreted sanctums of juvenile scholarship. Blissfully, they wallow in team games, shepherd’s pie, uniforms and Latin. Khazak whoops of triumph echo from cricket nets, Japanese youngsters strut their musical stuff in O for The Wings of the Dove and Parry’s I Was Glad is raised to the hammerbeam rooftops of countless chapels by everyone from everywhere.


Many of these families are in search of what they like to think of as English “values” as well as of the liberal attributes of our schools. At home – seemingly in many parts of the world – schooling is rigid, relying on rote-learning and drills. Today’s global and enlightened parents want the emphasis on personal exploration and thinking skills that our good schools encourage. And we have welcomed them and their bankers’ drafts.


Enough already?


Until now. All of a sudden we are being told by harassed registrars – “We simply cannot take any more Russians – however good their English.” Or “Twenty per cent of the year group is Spanish – that’s enough.” And, of course, foreign nationals themselves always say to us – “We don’t want our children to go to a school where there are lots of other people from here” – wherever “here” happens to be in their case!


But they keep on coming. And their agents keep on coming too. We are approached weekly by agents with overflowing portfolios of rich clients – mostly Russians – who “will” send their children to school here.


Dread word!


On paper, there is no reason why they shouldn’t. The children are able, often they have attended international schools so their English is good enough and they have much to offer. Many schools have been kept afloat by a healthy contingent of bright foreign pupils in recent years. But afloat is one thing, submerged is another and the tide is, evidently, turning. We are now getting anxious and hurt calls from parents – usually Russians – asking whether there is now a prejudice against pupils from Russia. The dreaded word “quota” is suddenly whispered everywhere. What are they to do?


But what are schools to do? Overseas families want the Englishness of traditional English schooling. Schools like to be inclusive, welcoming ecumenical. They have become skilled in integrating everyone so that gaggles of pupils chattering in their home languages are seldom found now. Most schools have resisted the temptation to expand in order to accommodate the huge numbers of potential foreign pupils – though the financial inducements would be considerable. But their reluctance to take large numbers from overseas is causing both anguish and anger. And to some extent their hands are tied by UK Border Control legislation, visa regulations and the numbers of overseas pupils they are actually allowed to accept.


Rock of Ages


So something has to change and it is hard to see what since both parents and schools are caught between the rock of the trad English school and the hard place of limitless demand.


We have hitherto been sceptical about the franchises and other school outposts set up by eg Dulwich College, Harrow and Repton in various parts of the world. They are cash cows, as registrars cheerily admit. But maybe they can also be the answer – or part of the answer?




Schools run on English boarding school lines with all the strengths and opportunities that are evidently so much in demand will, perhaps, stimulate indigenous versions in remote parts of the world. A true English export and maybe one we should look at afresh?


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