Royal Grammar School


Crisis? What crisis?

Crisis? What crisis?

Former Prime Minister Jim Callaghan never said that. The expression was coined by a Sun reporter trying to convey the impression (rather successfully, as it happened) that Sunny Jim was out of touch. There he was, presiding over the Winter of Discontent on 1978-9, a Labour leader at war with the Trades Unions over pay rises, uncollected rubbish piled in the streets and, so it was alleged, bodies lying unburied in mortuaries.

So one needs to be careful before quoting that particular, rather unfortunate phrase. But here I must. Saturday’s Times screamed “Private Schools in Crisis”. Owner of the Good Schools Guide Lord Lucas declared in an interview to the TES that state schools have improved so much that independent schools “are on the wane”. He predicted “a serious bleed out of the independent system”, and “slow shrinkage”.

It’s true that the independent sector has suffered more deeply and for longer in the North than (Surprise! Surprise!) in the South-East: the economic downturn has been longer and deeper. 

But Lord Lucas’s comments and the consequent “crisis” reports describe a world that doesn’t exist for the vast majority of state or private schools. Independent schools are pragmatic and adaptable. During tough economic times they shrink: sometimes they merge or sadly close: we’ve seen both occur close to home in Newcastle and Sunderland. 

Yet, when things recover, the sector’s still there, and strong: we’re seeing that here too. Moreover, the Independent Schools Council reports rising numbers in the sector, this year even in the north. Here at the RGS last month we sat down a record number of candidates for our Year 7 entrance exam. That’s not a crisis by any stretch of the imagination. 

Lord Lucas reckons he’s spotted another weakness in independent schools: he claims there’s “increasing homogeneity and conformity” in the way independent schools teach. I’d respond that both the independent and state sectors have learnt in recent years to share best practice in teaching: what he calls dull conformity is to my mind consistency in the relentless pursuit of excellence.

He also believes, he says, that independent schools will survive only by offering quirky things like polo teams: on the contrary, I think they thrive by being excellent in everything they do. That’s what parents rightly demand from both sectors. 

Lord Lucas’s Good Schools Guide seeks out schools’ individuality and writes nice, tongue-in-cheek thumbnail sketches about them. His reviewer’s write-up of the RGS, published last year, was amusing, perceptive and uncovered no tedious conformity: you can read it – if you subscribe to the Guide or buy a printed version. 

It’s a great write-up, and a credit to the Guide’s reviewer that her judgment was entirely vindicated by the much more detailed, formal but nonetheless glowing inspection report from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) which has recently entered the public domain. No crisis there, then.

Following his comments, I’ve had to suffer more media nonsense about the private sector than I’ve read for a long time. Journalists described how oligarchs and the super-rich are turning away from private schools, all based on “research” carried out in places as far apart as Barnet and Hampstead! Moreover, their analysis barely reached beyond the effect on London and the South-East of the few top selective state grammar schools.

Maybe it’s different in London: up in Newcastle upon Tyne, at any rate, we independents do real life. We are on good terms with our neighbours in both sectors. We don’t charge eye-watering annual fees, recognising that £12,000 is a significant sum. We raise and spend £700K each year on bursaries, because we don’t want to become the exclusive preserve even of the relatively rich. 

One man’s views, however influential, do not create a crisis for the independent sector, though our schools deserved better from him.

No crisis then: more a storm in a tea-cup. 

Have a great half-term!

Bernard Trafford