Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Politics of Envy

Politics of Envy


Tuesday was a bad day. I was battling (heroically, of course) with a bout of man-flu: next, to make a tricky morning more difficult, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt got on the radio announcing his party’s latest onslaught on independent schools. I wasn’t the only head to pen a rapid response: but by lunchtime mine was up on the TES blog page, which you can read by clicking here

I don’t need to repeat here the arguments (pretty obvious ones, at that) I used to puncture some of his crazy hyperbole. What is most worrying, I think, is the breath-taking arrogance that underlies or overlays his party’s hostility to our sector. Some of it is plain ignorance. For example, Dr Hunt says it’s not enough for us independents with our glorious sports facilities to allow local state schools to use them: we should actually play sport against them and take part in local leagues.

What does he think we do? My footballing colleagues tell me that the local league is one of the toughest in the country: of course we take part, and of course we quite often get beaten. Our rugby supporters may focus most closely on the local derby between us and Durham School: a still more local one will take place on Wednesday 10th December, when the 1st XV will meet Gosforth Academy which hosts, of course, the Falcons Development Squad. We are not in any way being generous or patronising by playing: it’s one of the toughest fixtures of the season.

Girls’ sport is still growing and developing at the RGS, full coeducation having arrived just nine years ago. How do we measure our success? By seeing how we fare in the region, playing all the regional netball and hockey competitions against maintained and independent schools alike.

That’s only one example of the kind of (wilfully) silly statement that starts to gain credence through sheer repetition. Talk of the sector having to “earn its keep” and no longer get “something for nothing” is equally pernicious when repeated time after time. 

It’s often hard for us to know those of us working in the sector, let alone representing it, how to respond. We risk appearing defensive, over-eager to justify ourselves: it’s a natural reaction. Yet simply to laugh it off and ignore it would appear arrogant. 

Maybe we need some of you parents whose sacrifices in finding school fees we never underestimate, to write to the papers, let alone to Dr Hunt, and tell them how things really are. As I said in the TES blog, we frequently share best practice with local schools, because we can learn from each other: a week rarely goes by without us welcoming visitors from one area of education or another into school to see what we do. And, yes, when asked we do give advice on applications to Oxbridge, even practice interviews. That’s just about being good neighbours.

But would you parents want your sons or daughters to have a “cover” lesson, to be left some work to do while their maths teacher, for example, went and helped out in a neighbouring state school? I fear you might wonder what you were paying fees for. Or should we simply employ a few more teachers – all on the fees – so that they all had more spare time to go out to other schools? I can see neither approach being welcomed – especially when you’ve already paid through your taxes for a state education that you haven’t claimed for your children!

At the root of this lie two things. First, a party lurching back to the left, though still ambivalent about the influence of the trades unions in its policy-making, can always find something to unite all its various factions and wings: fight the class war again and find scapegoats to blame for the ills that all the major parties seem impotent to cure. 

The politics of envy focus not on bringing up the worst but on tearing down the best – yes, the best schools in the world, according to PISA measures. It didn’t work in the French Revolution but when did politicians ever heed the lessons of history?

Dr Hunt’s other motivation is blind panic. The Coalition’s insistence on making teacher–training entirely school-based - taking it out of the university education departments on the entirely spurious and unproven grounds that they were “too theoretical” – seems set to leave us with a serious shortage of teachers over the next few years.   So someone comes up with the bright wheeze of using financial pressure (or threats of it) to make independent schools fill the gaps by lending out our teachers.

In Norton Juster’s lovely 1961 children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth, there’s a place named the Half-Bakery: it is, of course, the place where half-baked ideas come from. 

I suspect Dr Hunt and his cronies have shares in it.

Bernard Trafford 
Headmaster