Royal Grammar School


A Professional Death-Wish?

A Professional Death-Wish?

This week I feel I need to write somewhat frankly, and not entirely tactfully about one or two of my fellow heads, people running more august and famous institutions even than the RGS who over the last week or so have felt the need to criticise parents - and even their own school. What is the reason for such attempted headmagisterial suicide? Are there any grounds for what they are saying? And do their concerns have any relevance either specifically to the RGS or more generally to the region?

Let me explain. First the Headmaster of King’s College School Wimbledon hit the press bemoaning the fact that his school’s fees had become so stratospheric (they approach some £20,000 a year – for a day school) that all the “ordinary” parents had been priced out of it, and it was becoming the preserve of the children of oligarchs.

Next the High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School appeared to be unaware that a conference session she was leading was also attended by the press, and lambasted parents for expecting perfection, demanding too much, acting as snowploughs for their daughters (obliterating all problems or danger of failure) and, in short, preventing them from learning the resilience that’s vital to growing up.

The news subsequently swung back to Wimbledon, where the Head announced that he wanted to increase bursary funds (which we all want to do!): but this was so that he could offer bursaries for parents on family incomes of nearly £100,000. That was, he said, the only way to get the ordinary parents back.

It’s fair to say that independent heads’ email was pretty busy with colleagues complaining about these outspoken comments: they seemed designed more to alienate parents than to win friends or even make a useful case. Given how hard life has been for many independent schools over the last six years, particularly as the money supply has dried up in swathes of the north (you know the north: the bit that the politicians always forget about), heads in this region feel insulted by being tarred with the south-eastern over-charging brush when they’ve been busting a gut to hold their fees down so as to remain affordable. 

Sadly, we all get lumped together in the collective mind of the media. Just check over a period of months how many times any article about independent schools is accompanied by one of those few but famous pictures of Harrovians in their boaters or Eton boys in their top hats. And then check how many times such words as toff or posh are used. I guess I must confess that, being in Jesmond, the RGS is situated in a very pleasant part of Newcastle! But our boys and girls would be mortified to be described as either posh or toffs.

Up here in the North-East we don’t come across many oligarchs! It’s an interesting choice of word, as it happens, because it’s something of a dirty one in the South-East. A major factor fuelling the stratospheric rise of property values in the capital is the fact that so much foreign money is buying property merely as investment. Those investors are indeed the super-rich, people who can pay £20 million for a nice house in Chelsea, and may visit it once or twice a year, if that. And, yes, some of them are the sort of Russian oligarchs, cronies of Vladimir Putin’s, who are now less than acceptable company to us, since his behaviour in Ukraine, and may also be the target of sanctions.

So is there any connection at all between the RGS and that picture of the south-eastern bubble (for that is what it is, and a super-heated one at that)? I confess I can’t think of one. The point was that the school has pushed its fees up so high, investing and building like fury, so that no one can afford them. In the North-East the average independent school fee is just over £11,000. Head to the North-West and you’ll find it’s £10,000. No one “up here” takes for granted for a moment the efforts parents have to make to find fees like that after tax. But we haven’t made our schools unaffordable, nor the exclusive preserve of oligarchs or whatever the north-eastern (Geordie?) equivalent is. 

Independent schools in the North-East certainly keep their facilities in order, and we build from time to time. When we build we build real quality: why would we do otherwise? But I don’t accept there’s any “arms race” as has been suggested, schools vying with one another to provide expensive and over-the-top facilities. RGS students get the facilities they need to learn, and that involves constant development and improvement. They get the best – but that is a relative and sensible best, not Rolls Royce, not gold-plated. Such accusations are silly.

And what about the condemnation of over-anxious parents, trying to obliterate all the obstacles in the way of their children’s happiness and success? If I’m really honest, I think parents can occasionally be tempted to do that. But that’s surely when we have to talk to them frankly and realistically. There is certainly a need to work hard to build resilience in children: it is an essential part of their growing up. And, yes, schools and parents alike can be risk-averse. What we need is robust and sensible conversations – and we certainly don’t need to bang parents over the head about it. (Surely a head in a tough neighbourhood comprehensive might say to those London-bubble independent-school colleagues, if you think over-anxious parents can be hard to work with you really should try some who don’t give a damn!)

Next came bursaries. I don’t believe any independent school that sincerely tries to raise funds in order to allow boys or girls from poorer homes to enjoy the opportunities at their school can ever feel they’ve “raised enough”. At the RGS over the last decade and a bit we’ve raised £6 million for bursaries. Is that enough? Sadly, not. We are delighted that 80 students are currently members of the school on bursaries: we’d like it to be many more, but we are already spending more than £700,000 a year. So we keep trying, and are pledged to try harder. 

We have to be honest here. We receive many more applications for bursaries than we can award: that’s understandable, particularly in tough times. We hate turning bright children away: and we also feel sorry for those parents on modest incomes who are just above the income range where our bursary scheme has to stop helping (around £48,000). But we have to cut our cloth, as the saying is, and do what we reasonably can. 

What we reasonably can do is well done: but we are ambitious to do more. Would we ever seek to help those up to £100,000? I suppose we might, if money were unlimited. But it never will be, and I have the impression that, though people work very hard to achieve a joint income of that scale, they don’t expect a lot of help with other things. In our Welfare State and still generous and (most of the time) compassionate society, those doing as well as that probably don’t expect help.

Wow! As I said at the beginning, I don’t know what possessed those heads to speak out in those terms. Their views don’t represent the reality in most of our schools, certainly in the North-East, and they give offence to a lot of hardworking heads and schools – and surely parents. 

The last straw came from Wimbledon, again! The head deplored the kind of public-school arrogance that is prevalent and dangerously excluding of others. 

Arrogance? Yes, there are types like that who are full of themselves, feel they are better than their fellows and are rude and insensitive as well. Are those genuinely the “products’ of independent schools? I’d hope we would see such types as our failures, not our successes. Just as I wrote above that RGS students don’t recognise themselves as posh or toffs (though I think most realise how lucky they are to be at the school), they would also take offence at the accusation of arrogance or excessive confidence. 

My colleagues who teach them would feel that any such arrogance is rare and quickly confronted. If anything, in what is a very pressured world for teenagers, there’s certainly not an excess of confidence – quite the opposite, indeed.

So these extraordinary pronouncements brought us at the RGS back to a few realities:
We do need to develop resilience in our boys and girls, and we are working to do it very hard. Dealing with failure is a huge thing: and (as I so often say) that is often learnt more easily on the sports field or on an expedition in the Cheviots than in the classroom. As we constantly remind parents and children alike, the lessons from those extracurricular activities are hugely valuable for the curricular. The skills, the experience the qualities and, yes, the resilience are all transferable.

We will keep making sure that the facilities for learning for our children at the RGS are the best they can reasonably be: and what defines reasonable is very largely dictated by the reasonable school fee that we can charge. The governors keep a watchful eye on that.

As for bursaries, we are not looking to help those families earning £90,000 or so (no offence to them: we just can’t). But we are desperately seeking to raise more bursaries: not because the newspapers say we should; not because politicians threaten us with losing charitable status if we don’t increase the amount of public benefit we offer; but because it’s right, what the school was founded for, and a vital part of education to maintain a wide social mix while bringing together those keen, enquiring, highly motivated young minds that achieve such astonishing things at the RGS.

Did you keep up? I’m sorry if I got carried away: but I feel better now.

Bernard Trafford