Independent schools: 21st-century character building
Introducing Telegraph Education's weeklong focus on independent schools, Helena Pozniak explains why in a competitive world your child needs to excel.
Parents’ evenings at Latymer Upper School in London have become more fun since economics teacher Nick Sennett began discussing current affairs with his pupils. “Parents tell us they are having great conversations with their 15-year-olds over dinner — about the economy, immigration or how much charity directors pay themselves,” he says.
Head of the school’s recently introduced World Perspectives course, which inspires pupils to explore current affairs, Sennett is encouraged that his students have blossomed. While the course doesn’t count towards exam results, the skills it nurtures — communication, teamwork and independent thought — are invaluable, he says. “The nature of GCSEs is so strict, you have less opportunity to look beyond [the curriculum]. Most pupils who have taken this course say they have learned to think critically and are more interested in what’s going on around them.”
A decade or so ago, a good set of grades or an impressive degree was enough to help students find a desirable university place or job. These days, employers frequently bemoan the lack of soft skills among job-seekers, while universities, struggling to differentiate between academically able candidates amid fierce competition, will look closely at their extracurricular life and readiness for higher education. Motivation and determination, plus the ability to work with others, communicate, contribute and sometimes lead, will inevitably swing the balance.
Equipping pupils with such skills — or “character building” as it might once have been known — has become the holy grail of education across the age groups. Often with more scope and freedom to tweak the curriculum than their state counterparts, independent schools have been able to introduce innovative projects to help pupils develop.
“Without sounding too much of an armchair psychologist, if schools just prepare pupils to jump through hoops they are missing a trick,” says Dr Jerry Grundy, headmaster at Akeley Wood School near Buckingham. “If, on the other hand, pupils leave school feeling comfortable in their own skin they will stand a better chance at work and in their personal lives.”
The highlight of Grundy’s teaching week is his lunchtime philosophy club, where pupils aged 11 begin to grapple with life’s larger questions. “Literacy and numeracy are, of course crucial, but no less important is establishing yourself as an independent thinker from the start,” he says.
In a survey last year, however, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) revealed that 61 per cent of employers believe school and college leavers lack self-management skills, and 71 per cent said schools at secondary level should focus on employability skills.
As employers wake up to their role in helping to foster these skills, independent schools have been quick to team up with businesses.
“At St George’s [School for Girls], we take careers education seriously,” says head Anne Everest, whose Edinburgh-based school hosts regular career breakfasts and presentations with staff from companies such as KPMG, HSBC and Standard Life. These links with employers also help pupils secure work experience. And last year around 87 per cent of its students went to their first choice of university.
Independent schools are becoming increasingly adept at raising pupils’ expectations and aspirations — whether in the form of in-house bakeries at progressive Hampshire school Bedales, workshops in social skills or financial literacy at St James Senior Girls’ School, Kensington, or off-syllabus academic societies, guest speakers and magazines created and run by pupils at North London Collegiate School (NLCS).
“By not giving up on anyone and instilling a culture of aspiration and 'can-do’, we get a higher proportion of pupils into good or competitive universities,” says Daniel Lewis, deputy head at NLCS. Last year the school sent the highest percentage of pupils to elite universities, according to research by the Sutt on Trust. “It’s not just about our most able students, but helping to instil in each and every person the belief that they can achieve,” adds Lewis.
All independent schools have their success stories, but how teachers manage to engage shy or reluctant pupils, the ones who might fall through the net, is crucial. Former head of Harrow School, Barnaby Lenon, now chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), did not mind if his pupils weren’t very good at games as long as they chose one of the 25 extracurricular options on offer at the school, ranging from drama to managing cattle. “What I minded was that every older pupil found something with which they could get involved. Sometimes pupils have to be 'impelled’, but they still reap the benefits of the experience,” he says.
Lenon points to the high take-up by independent schools of “character-building” activities, such as the cadet forces, or the significant number of private-school pupils achieving Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards — 2012 saw more private- than state-school pupils win gold, even though they make up just 6.5 per cent of UK schoolchildren.
“It’s no easy matter attaining that level. Schools that are organised and have a tradition of taking part will encourage more pupils to participate. This isn’t something a school can buy — it’s to do with attitude,” he says, although state schools might argue that it also requires time and resources.
Despite reports this year that pupils from independent schools are being passed over in favour of state candidates for entry to elite universities, this is not borne out by figures. The University of Sheffield’s vice chancellor, Prof Sir Keith Burnett, wrote recently that he made no distinction between private- and state-educated applicants, and an ISC survey shows that university offers for private school candidates rose to 75.9 per cent last year, up from 72 per cent in 2011.
Meanwhile, research from the Sutton Trust says independent school pupils are more than twice as likely as those from comprehensives to win places at the most selective UK universities.
This is partly due to A-level choices; pupils at independent schools are more likely to take “facilitating” core subjects preferred by Russell Group universities. No doubt personal statements tend to be more polished too, work experience might be more impressive and pupils may have more opportunities to practise interview techniques.
Rebecca Wilkin, 18, who has just received an offer to read Classics at St Anne’s College, Oxford, had a mock interview every week at NLCS in the run-up to the real thing. But admissions staff would also have been impressed by her decision to organise a Classics Week at her school to promote the subject, and her ability to think on her feet.
“We do notice that private-school pupils tend not only to get better grades, but can appear stronger when it comes to presenting their personal qualities and extracurricular activities. However, experienced [university admissions] staff look beyond that as they are keen not to discriminate against pupils and won’t base their decisions purely on where they were educated,” says Marlon Gomes, head of admissions and recruitment at Queen Mary, University of London, a member of the Russell Group.
“A bright student is a bright student and we judge on merit. Candidates can impress by demonstrating a passion for a subject, backed up by an understanding of where it might lead them.”
Case study: Lizzie Pearmain, 17, North London Collegiate School student
Currently studying for her A-levels, Pearmain has an offer from Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, to read natural sciences this autumn. “The most important thing is to be enthusiastic about your subject, and my teachers have really inspired me,” she says.
“If you choose science, you should also expose yourself to lots of ideas. I’m a member of the school science society and I help publish a science magazine once a fortnight. We cover all sorts of issues — from arguing the case for genetic modification to discussing the concept of infinity — and invite good speakers, mostly from London universities.
“I did work experience for a medical research charity and in the future I want to work in research linked to biology or chemistry. My school organised two mock interviews, but at Cambridge they didn’t focus on extracurricular activities. The questions were mostly science-related — things I didn’t know but had to work out.”
Offering a taste of the real world
Two sixth-formers from St John’s College in Portsmouth were invited to run chef Jamie Oliver’s ice-cream van as a small business venture last summer. During the seven-week scheme, Jarrard Hayler and Edwin Hardy (above) were partly responsible for staff rotas, promotions, discounts, budgeting and stock control. Both say the experience helped them with their business studies A-level and in generating original content for their Ucas applications.
Alderley Edge School for Girls in Cheshire is running a fantasy investment league, allowing Year 11 and sixth-form pupils to choose how they invest £300 over six months. Mentors from Wilmslow Equilibrium Asset Management have explained the nuts and bolts of investment and risk management, and girls are encouraged to follow the economy and change their portfolio accordingly. Prizes include an iPod, and any profits will go into the school coffers.
Sixth-formers at Whitgift School in Croydon have been applying for prestigious Arkwright Engineering Scholarships since 1996, and the school currently has eight scholars. Excelling at STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the sixth-formers are supported through engineering projects and are almost guaranteed work experience and opportunities in affiliated companies and universities behind the scheme.