Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Keeping focused

Keeping focused

It was interesting yesterday morning to hear the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, deal skilfully with some hostile questioning on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Inexplicably becoming an advocate for government policies, the interviewer hammered away at her, demanding to know why Oxford University wasn't sponsoring or opening a state school in the way Imperial College London , and Birmingham University have.

The VC was adamant. Oxford University does a great deal of outreach work, sh said, doing all it can to make it accessible to applicants from state schools. But to open a school, she said, is not the university's expertise. It could be patronising to do so, and, above all, it would detract the institution which has just been named the best university in the world from its core purpose.

I confess I cheered! We experience the same pressure in independent schools. We're berated for (allegedly) pocketing the tax benefits of charitable status while putting nothing back.

The accusation is unfounded. But, despite engaging in all kinds of partnership and outreach, here at RGS we too feel that it's not our role to open or formally to sponsor state schools. In leafy Jesmond, what do I know about running a school in a tough, deprived part of the North East (and there are plenty of those)? On the other hand, we are pretty good at assuring excellence and aspiration, and we share our experience and understanding of them where we can. 

What I really enjoyed was hearing Professor Richardson's instance on core purpose. There are many distractions out there, many of them initiatives, pressure or criticism from government. My email is constantly filled with offers or demands that I should do this or that to enhance the School's performance, or to do something else out in the community.

So I'm with Oxford's Vice Chancellor. We know what our core purpose is, the pursuit of excellence for the children in this school.

It's a narrow purpose. Parents and students alike know just how passionate we are in our belief that the education we offer must be broad as well as challenging, and that what boys and girls learn from the vast range of activities outside the classroom contributes to what they learn within it. Thus, our extra-curricular programme actually enhances exam results. 

So we don't chase results or load our students with more and more classwork in the pursuit of top grades at the expense of their all-round development: in the end, that would be self-defeating.

It's an old expression that the cobbler needs to stick to his last (the main tool of his trade). It remains true in education and certainly applies to RGS. We have a very clear idea of our core purpose (while you're reading this why not have a look elsewhere on our website, including the School's ethos). Part of my job, indeed, is to ensure that we are not pushed off course by outside pressures. 

Knowing what you are trying to do and keeping focused on it. That's the key. It's one of the strengths of which we can boast at the Royal Grammar School.

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster