Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Telling it straight

Telling it straight


It’s good to be back in Newcastle after three days and nights in St Andrews at the Annual Conference of HMC, the association representing the 270 (or thereabouts) leading independent schools in the UK and overseas. It’s particularly pleasing to be back in sunshine, too: up in the ancient Kingdom of Fife it was pleasant enough yesterday, having rained ceaselessly throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m still waiting for my shoes and therefore my feet to dry out!

If you follow education news in the press, you might have seen some of the weighty topics with which we’ve been grappling. An interesting angle on these discussions is the attitude the press tends to take. When we’re talking about public exams (and, yet again, berating the examination boards for their shortcomings), the press is very much on our side: HMC is seen as the guardian of standards – in the sense that we are a powerful lobby that pushes to get things put right (I only wish it felt that way more often when at single-school level we are battling with a Board). 

In a session on sport in schools (note: not just independent schools), the very articulate Neil Rollings mentioned, merely in passing, the traditional 19th Century public school approach to sport as exemplified by Rugby School and the famous Dr Arnold. Sure enough, it pops up in the press with headlines along the lines of Private schools told it’s time to move beyond Tom Brown’s schooldays. For goodness sake: the old unconscious (or very conscious) bias is clearly alive and well.

We suffered the same ignorant treatment just before and during the conference as we majored on a theme of immense importance in all schools, not merely the independent sector, the issue of mental health and wellbeing – and, of course, the flipside of mental illness - among young people.

There are many ways in which the independent sector is leading the way on raising levels of awareness among the public about mental health issues in the young: raising levels of confidence and competence among teachers in understanding and dealing with such issues; and running events and courses (such as the RGS’s second annual mental health conference, ReTHINK, which we hosted only last month). Yet those serious discussions, following an in-depth survey of schools’ provision, were characterised again, predictably, as mental illness epidemic sweeping private schools.

Do I begin to despair? No, in truth I don’t. For a start I’m an optimist. More to the point, though, while we must take seriously the growing level of concern about mental illness among young people, we can take confidence in a few things:

we are recognising the reality and doing something about it instead of wringing our hands helplessly;
we in independent schools who are taking a lead are managing to make our voices heard so that government is at last talking about increasing resources for supporting young people with such problems, both in school and outside through the Health Service; 
by talking more openly we are developing a common language and common approaches and helping to render those who work with young people – teachers and health workers alike – more confident and better equipped to provide the support that young people need so very much.

Annoying about the press, then. But it’s good that the powerful independent schools get together, have the confidence and courage to talk about even the difficult issues, taking risks with the reaction from the press in order actually to make a difference.

Make a difference? That’s what education is for isn’t it?

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster