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20 Sep 2015

Bring Up The Governing Bodies

Being a school governor is a serious business and one of the most demanding moments comes when an existing head teacher presents his/her resignation. Governing bodies of “top schools” these days spend tens of thousands on head hunters when recruiting a new head teacher. And no wonder. Schools are big business. Leadership is critical when staff, parents, pupils and the press are constantly on the watch for a falling off in results, a scandal in the dorms, a whiff of narcotic or the suspicion that a member of staff may be getting a tad too friendly with a member of the lower sixth. Today’s head has to be all things to all men – cheering on the touch lines, suave and charming at school concerts, fair but firm when needful, astute financially, demanding academically and brilliantly diplomatic at spur of the moment fire-fighting.

Grudge and snobbery

Some new heads slip into their role to sustained rejoicing. A few meet hostility derived from jealousy, grudge, snobbery, misinterpretation – wilful or dim-witted – or dyed-in-the-wool prejudice. Former or current staff members, Old Boys/Girls, disgruntled parents or pupils can be quick to mount campaigns using the social media readily available to rubbish reputations and slander individuals with impunity.

We have witnessed a number of such campaigns recently – the perpetrators will know who they are. In each case, the head is a tried and tested professional with a track record while not being a clone of his/her popular and long-serving predecessor.


This is not to say that some headmagisterial appointments are not calamitous mistakes. We can recall more than one head packed off with a handsome settlement and gagging contract after a brief tenure marked more by rapid and unworkable innovations designed rather for his own glory than the benefit of his school or pupils. And, occasionally, a head can look great on paper but cut a poor figure on the stage at prize giving – and these days, this simply won’t do.

So parents and pupils do, on occasions, have legitimate cause for alarm and even fear but resorting to cheap smears and carping campaigns is not the way to deal with the problem. The governors appointed the head. It is their responsibility to ensure their decision was a wise one. Parents or others with real concerns must be confident that they will be heard if they approach the governors. Likewise, a new head must feel supported by those who appointed him/her.

Efficient, skilled – and visible

Of course, some governing bodies these days are efficient, skilled and manage to be human and visible too. But not all. The skills needed to manage as complex an organism as a modern school are not those gained at school reunions, coffee mornings or hunt balls. Finance, social media, IT, people skills, site management – expertise in all these and more are needed. It shouldn’t happen but when things go wrong, all too often ranks close, meaningless bland and lawyer-dictated pronouncements are issued and panicky parents scoop up Harry and Mia and make for the hills.

No more sniping, please

Head hunters come and go – clutching their fees. Recruiting the right people as governors – if they are to make a real commitment – isn’t easy. The charitable status of independent schools means that they can’t be paid for the work they do and the responsibilities – and liabilities – can be considerable. But it’s in everyone’s interests that school governance be effective, confident, modern and open. If a school’s governors are known to – and have the support of – the school as a whole, we shouldn’t see the childish, behind the bike-shed, tweeting and sniping campaigns we’ve witnessed lately.

15 Sep 2015

IT’s Not Everything

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development today reports on the impact of technology as used in schools on test results, such as the Pisa tests which are taken in more than 70 countries.

In essence, it concludes that countries whose education systems made major investments in IT have made “no noticeable improvement” in Pisa tests in reading, mathematics or science. The UK has a high ratio of computers to the numbers of children but we score less well on the tests than countries such as China and Korea where basic skills such as reading and maths are more prominent in the timetable.

This challenges the orthodoxy which has insisted over thirty years that IT should be embedded in all aspects of a pupil’s learning. To some teachers of some subjects, the insistence on doing everything via IT has become tyrannical and unjustified on educational terms. Essay writing skills plummet when pupils are expected to think directly onto a screen.

Competence in IT is essential for all in today’s world and an understanding of what lies behind the screen eg how programming works is equally important. Our children will be the inventors and innovators in the decades to come and no-one imagines this will be done without IT skills in all their aspects.

But IT is – and can only ever be – a tool – a means to an end. Far too often IT skills are seen as an end in themselves. They may well be just that in games but in anything else? Nothing in a computer arrives there by itself – someone has thought it up and put it there.

Our children need – more than anything – to think for themselves – to imagine. To have the ideas that no-one has had before and have the skills to turn them into reality. Education, first and foremost, should free the mind. That is first principle. Basic skills, information and technology come second.

13 Sep 2015

Scholarships and Bursaries – What Every Parent Should Know

Around a third of pupils – almost 170,000 – at independent schools have some kind of fee reduction in the shape of a scholarship or bursary. These schools now devote more than £800m to fee assistance. Over 5,000 pupils are on full bursaries ie they pay no fee at all. This when a full boarding school place can cost over £30,000 a year.

How Do I Find Out?

But how do parents find out about scholarships and bursaries? Who tells you whether your child might qualify? Is it up to how bright he/she is? How much can your income be before you earn too much to be considered for a bursary? Is there financial help for children with particular talents or from particular backgrounds? Surely the bodies which represent the schools have a website telling you all this stuff?


Believe it or not, up till now, you have had to approach each school individually to find out what might be on offer – something many parents are reluctant to do without some idea of whether they are in with any kind of a chance.

Nearly 700 schools have given us info

So, three years ago we at The Good Schools Guide started to collect all the information we could on what is available where. We have written to every independent school in the country asking them to supply us with details of the scholarships, bursaries and other reductions they offer and what the criteria are for applying. This year we have updated the information and we now hold data on nearly 700 schools.

Unique to The Good Schools Guide

This is a unique resource. Parents can call us with the age of their child, their aptitudes and skills, the areas of the country they would consider and the type of help they need. We then search for scholarships and bursaries according to each family’s criteria.

And Common Sense

We also offer sensible and necessary advice – usually helping parents understand that any such application should be undertaken with caution – no-one is entitled to fee assistance and schools make up their own rules which determine who, in the end, will be offered help and who won’t. But we can tell you where is worth applying.

Collecting this data has been an immense job and this means we must make a charge for a search. A simple search resulting in a list of schools tailored to your needs starts at £180. Our successes have been remarkable: an overseas aid worker’s four children gaining 100% bursaries at a boarding school; a chess genius gaining 50% reduction of fees on account of his skill; a newly-arrived Russian mathematician on a 100% combined scholarship and bursary on the strength of his 11+ exam; the children of a single mum with a brain tumour on full bursaries at a boarding school. And many, many more with less – but sufficient – financial help to enable them to take up places at highly academic schools.

Ask us anything

Talk to us to discuss how we can help you – 0203 286 6824 or find out more about our unique Scholarships and Bursaries Service here: .

You lose nothing by asking. Anything you tell us is always entirely confidential.

Your Child – Nothing Matters More

09 Sep 2015

“Summer-born” children will now be free to start Reception in the school year in which they turn six – so why aren’t we ecstatic?

Educating our children is one of those big things in life, like marriage and heart surgery, that one does not want to get wrong. So it’s not surprising that parents of children destined to be youngest in their year group worry how their children will fare.

Except that until recently the idea of putting a child down a year would have been very surprising. When I began writing for The Good Schools Guide almost 20 years ago the last thing most parents wanted was to keep their child ‘back’. Starting school later than normal was associated with slowness – with big lug children in too-short trousers towering clumsily above their dimple-kneed peers.

The “problem” of summer-borns arose in the era of tiger mums, helicopter parenting, private tutors and Baby Einstein. Research published by the government and elsewhere showed us that children born in the summer months were more likely to score poorly on academic tests, be bullied and be diagnosed with special education needs.

No one wants their child to start school with an inbuilt disadvantage. Parents worked out that holding children back made them bigger, brainier and better co-ordinated than their classmates. Today almost every mum and dad we talk to would like their child to be in the older half of the class – ideally in the hoariest 10 per cent. So what’s wrong with letting the parents of summer borns have free choice over when their children start school? I’ll give you my top ten:

  1. How do you define ‘summer born’? Cases in the news have spotlighted children born in late August. But the DfE defines summer-born as children born between 1 April – 31 August. That is getting awfully close to 50% of children.
  2. Changing the cut-off date creates a new cliff edge. Since when is a child born on March 31st more mature than one born on 1 April?
  3. It asks a lot of teachers. Most teachers have a 12 month age span to manage. How will they cope with a 17 months?
  4. There are other solutions. Teachers can be made more aware of pupils’ birth dates and provide extra care, in the same way that help is delivered to children who need learning support or who are identified as gifted. Key stage and GCSE results could be age adjusted. Birth month could be part of the contextual data provided to universities etc etc. Sports teams already use age based groupings (U10, U12 etc), instead of year group.
  5. Reception is flexible. Schools organise it in different ways for instance starting only two mornings a week and building up. Schools with several forms sometimes break up the forms by age so younger children can start together.
  6. Reception is not that big a deal. The UK is unusual in providing universal schooling for children from the September after they turn four, and there’s a good reason this schooling is optional until they turn five. It’s a sort of freebie. Summer borns who would rather delay starting school until they are five can stick with free nursery education instead of starting Reception before they feel ready. Would parents of summer borns feel better if the Reception year were dropped, or relabelled something like Upper Nursery?
  7. Challenges facing summer borns fade as they journey through school. Many summer-borns do worse on tests when they are young, but this effect is greatly diminished by GCSEs and there’s little (if any) evidence that these children suffer in university or adult life.
  8. Many tests and entry points along the education highway are age dependent. By starting their child late, parents risk disadvantage later, for instance with NFER tests, 11+ grammar school exams and academic scholarships to independent schools. And more problems can arise even further down the road: school children who start their final school year at the age of 18, receive less funding than 16 and 17-year-olds
  9. Most parents don’t have the luxury of keeping their children from starting school for an extra year. Most parents need their children to start asap for the free child care it provides. It is the more assertive, educated and financially secure parents – those, generally speaking, who are most keen for their children to start school late – whose children are actually least likely to suffer from being summer born.
  10. Who needs more to worry about? If almost half of parents can choose which year group their children enter isn’t this just one more thing for parents to agonise over? Who needs it?

The issue of school starting age concerns not only the parents of children born in the warmer half of the year. It affects all school children, their parents, teachers, nurseries and others. Campaigners for increased flexibility for summer-born children have done well reminding schools of the need for differentiation in teaching and of the special care they must give their youngest charges. But a floating start date is not the answer.

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