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Chris McGovern: Looking for a good school? Try our private sector not China


Many commentators on education, including our current batch of education ministers, look with admiration at what pupils achieve in certain Asia Pacific countries. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and even Vietnam, are miles ahead of the UK in terms of educational attainment at school.

The Government is so impressed, in fact, that it sent a schools’ minister off to Shanghai, recently, with a group of teachers in order to learn how we should be teaching mathematics. One consequence is that a bunch of Chinese teachers will be landing on these shores next term to help us out. Whether this educational missionary endeavour by the Chinese will help our children is yet to be seen. It should be an interesting experience for both sides.

There is one question above all, however, that we should be asking of Shanghai and, indeed, of the other successful education systems in Asia. Where exactly do their wealthiest and most successful parents send their children to school? It is to the schools chosen by the ‘elite” of Asia Pacific that we should be looking if we really want to learn some lessons on how to improve educational standards in this country.

To many in the UK it may come as a surprise to learn that, if they can afford it, many parents in the educational ‘hot spots’ of the Asia Pacific choose to send their children to British schools. This means sending what may be an only child, half way around the world at vast expense in order to achieving schooling that they consider superior to anything on offer at home. What an endorsement of our much-maligned school system!

Sadly, the British schools which these parents are buying into are not the schools to which most parents in this country send their children – the schools identified by Tony Blair as ‘bog standard comprehensives’. They are the private schools that only around 8% of UK pupils attend.

Our independent schools are regarded around the world as simply the best – no ‘ifs’ or ‘but’. If you want the best, go to Britain. And yet, in this country, we seem strangely reluctant, even embarrassed about the extraordinary success of these schools.

It is good news, therefore, to read that Sir Alasdair MacDonald, the Welsh Assembly’s ‘Raising Attainment’ Tsar, has courageously admitted, in the very public forum of the Cheltenham Science Festival, that pupils in Britain can only get a good education if they go to private school. Of course, there are some first rate maintained schools but his concern is that these days a state school education has become synomynous with a narrow education.

My personal teaching experience was split between both sectors. I taught in three large state comprehensives before teaching in private schools. Also, as a parent, I had experience of both sectors. My own schooling was in the maintained sector. So, from this background, what have I learnt about the differences between the two sectors? Make no mistake, for all Mr Gove would have us believe otherwise, the gap between state school and the best independent schools is vast.

It is vast in terms of curriculum breadth and challlenge, it is vast in terms of the provision of extra-curricula activities, it is vast in terms of the individual attention received by each child. The subject qualifications of teachers is generally, if not always, superior in the best independent schools and the remuneration and morale of staff is, invariably, higher.

Parental involvement and support is often more evident at independent schools and it is expected. Too often, in maintained schools, parents who wish to be more involved in their child’s education can feel frustrated. And we should not forget classroom discipline and good order which is a feature of independent schools. On the whole, in private schools, children who want to learn are in an environment where they are allowed to learn.

So, we do not need to look far for a model on which to base the improvement of our state schools. And, no, the success of independent schools is not based simply on greater financial resources. It is based on tried and tested methods of teaching, an awareness of a need to educate the ‘whole’ child including the child’s full academic potential, the application of ‘common sense’ in management and educational philosophy.

Perhaps, most of all, independent schools are less fervent about promoting a single ‘best practice’ in any aspect of teaching. Individualism has a place. In the best independent schools teachers are accountable but they are allowed to ‘breathe’.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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