“I am really interested in what it is in the private schools which is leading to those more high prestige careers, because if there is something I can replicate here, I’d like to do that. And I like to think that they might learn one or two things from us as well.” – Jo Ward, headteacher, Bemrose School
“I think that what the independent sector delivers is superb, it’s rightly regarded as just about the best education in the world. If every school in the country focused on what the independent sector focuses on, then I think frankly we’d be sorted.” – Mark Mortimer, headmaster, Warminster School
This new two-part documentary features a comprehensive headteacher and three pupils swapping with their private counterparts to find out if public schools give you a first-class advantage, and whether a state education really means second-rate.
In a unique experiment Jo Ward, the head of 700-pupil state secondary Bemrose School in Derby, takes three of her pupils – Brett, Nazh and Qasim – to meet Mark Mortimer, who runs 400-pupil Warminster School, a private boarding establishment, and three of his own pupils – Xander, Katy and Jon.
With GCSE A to C grade pass rates of under 50 per cent and an admissions policy that means more than half of new students don’t speak English as their first language, Bemrose could be said to be a typical urban comprehensive. And with annual boarding fees of more than £27,000 and a dozen tennis courts, Warminster fits the perception of many fee-paying independent schools.
This programme provides a close insight into the perceived educational gulf between the two schools, the attitudes of the students and their teachers towards each other, and asks whether a private education is a ticket to a top job later in life.
In the first episode, Mark Mortimer and his trio of pupils from Warminster visit Bemrose. The students are among 13 new joiners in their week at the school. Before they arrive, Jo reveals her reservations about private schools. She says: “I’ve got this horrible sinking feeling it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, but we’ll see.”
Xander says he’s not worried about being teased by other pupils because of his background. He says: “They are likely to have some sort of stereotype of me as some sort of posh kid who has a mansion and 50 cars or something. But hey, let’s break a few stereotypes.”
Headteacher Mark is surprised to discover just how many pupils are admitted direct from overseas. He says: “I mean for a child who comes from overseas, and hasn’t potentially been to school in his or her own country, it must be a culture shock of an enormous proportion.”
In their admissions tests at Bemrose, the private school pupils scored average reading ages of over 18 years old. By contrast, all the other entrants had English as a second-language and scored an average reading age of a seven-year-old. Xander goes into class with his Bemrose counterpart Brett, who says he likes messing about in lessons for fun. However, he says he realises how important education is. He says: “If I don’t get my head down at school, I’ll probably end up doing nothing with my life.”
Jo, who took over at Bemrose in 2004 when it was a failing school and set about turning it around, has doubts about the quality of teaching in private schools. She says: “Some of the weakest teachers I have ever known have been recruited into the private sector to teach. Is it the case that because children perhaps are more compliant you can be more lazy in the way that you teach them?”
Mark Mortimer agrees to teach a lesson during his week at the school. A history teacher, he takes on a first year GCSE group from a Bemrose teacher. Jon, meanwhile, gets his first taste of maths in the state sector. At Warminster, he has been entered for foundation level GCSE maths, meaning the top grade he can get is a C. But at Bemrose, teacher Mr Thomas, whose lessons Jon enjoys, says he would be in the top set and aiming for a grade A. Jon says: “When someone like that says something like that, it makes you feel so good, it’s great, it’s a really nice feeling inside. It just shows that state education doesn’t necessary mean worse education, it just means different and different can sometimes be good.”
Meanwhile, private school girl Katy is invited home for dinner with Nazh and her family. Nazh, who was originally from Syria but moved to Britain in 2011, is ambitious and aims to become Prime Minister one day. She says: “There are some students who don’t really care what they do and how they succeed and if they are going to be successful or not. My parents believe in me, it makes me stronger. I’ve had that dream since I was a little girl. This might sound crazy, I want to go to Oxford or Cambridge – somewhere big.”
Katy is impressed by Nazh’s ambition and realises it gives her an insight into her own education. She says: “I feel like [going to] Warminster, it gives you a chance to try everything. So if you’re at Bemrose and you have a clear idea of what you want to be, then that’s fine, but if you [haven’t] you can get washed away with the rest of the other pupils there.”
One major difference between the schools is Warminster’s boarding function, which Jon says gives him more motivation and less time to mess about in class. He says: “Maybe I wouldn’t have the same amount of discipline here as I would in Warminster because you’ve always got something occupying you which means there’s less time for you to mess around.”
Despite its shorter day, Bemrose has its own version of so-called wrap-around care – a dedicated unit called Cherry Tree. One of the ways it helps pupils is restorative justice, and head of house Ann Daykin takes Mark to observe a session dealing with an altercation between two young girls. Ann says: “It is another alternative way of dealing with conflict and it’s teaching them the skills of how to do them and it’s actually just re-educating them in certain areas of how you can empathise with somebody and not have to talk that way to somebody else.”
Mark says he believes the difference between the private and state sectors can simply be a matter of instilling confidence into pupils. “I think the answer is many pupils leave independent schools genuinely believing they can achieve anything they like if they set their mind to it. They have high self-esteem and self-confidence.”
At Bemrose, it’s that very self-esteem which is lacking for some students – particularly white British boys, who are underachieving nationwide. Every Wednesday, Brett gets up early to attend a breakfast club for this group – and this time he takes along Xander. Teacher Mustan Khan, who has been running the club for the last year, says it aims to build their confidence: “You’ve gone to a lesson, you’ve tried and the teachers said it’s not very good and you’ve believed that and you think it’s not very good too. So you’ve conditioned yourself to say, ‘I’m not very good.’”
As the week draws to a close, the headteachers give their thoughts at the halfway point of the experiment. Mark says it’s given him a much more vivid insight into the realities of life at a comprehensive. He says: “There are clearly a number of children here who face significant challenges just in terms of coming to school, understanding how to learn, speaking English, having enough clothes to keep warm, having enough food, to thrive. When I’m back at Warminster, getting worked up about having asparagus or beans for lunch I think remembering back to some of the challenges that Bemrose faces will be helpful.”
Jo, who visits Warminster in the next episode, says she hopes the private school doesn’t live up to her preconceptions. She says: “Mark said there isn’t a special cupboard that they go into and come out and they’re politicians or journalists. So if there isn’t a special cupboard, what is it? He was at pains to point out it wasn’t about who people knew and who they were introduced to. But maybe he is where he is because of who he has been introduced to.”