Private School Pressures

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

It’s a tough life, teaching in the independent sector, don’t you know? That certainly was the message coming from the National Education Union at their annual conference in Liverpool. Dr Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said some of her members in private schools are now under unbearable strain.

It was reported in The Times that in years gone by the only thing parents expected from a private school education was a plummy accent and the right sort of friends, whereas now they want stellar grades and a place at a top university as well, regardless of their child’s ability. Teachers at the conference passed a motion calling on independent schools to address the burgeoning workload being placed on staff by increasingly demanding parents. The motion said that teachers are at the beck and call of “parents, governors and children” who email and text them in the evenings and at weekends.

It was intriguing to think about these claims and reflect on my own experiences over 30 years teaching in independent schools.

I dare say that a lot of what is reported is completely accurate in terms of workload and hours. I once logged my own working hours over an entire summer term, I guess about 15 years ago. It was certainly before the advent of smartphones, and although emails were definitely a frequent means of communication, they could only be accessed when I was sitting at my desk. I carefully recorded that term the hours where I was in class, or marking, or on duty in the boarding house, or running games sessions, or umpiring school cricket matches. The average number of hours I worked each week that term was 80. That didn’t include the further hours when I was on call as a resident teacher. That would have been most of the remaining 88 hours of the week. So it is unlikely that the level of workload in terms of time has increased beyond what has always been familiar to me.

Maybe what has changed is the level of demand and pressure, which is a completely different aspect of anyone’s working life. Whilst most people would have thought the hours of my working life to be pretty crazy (my parents certainly did, and my sister who worked in a state school thought I was mad), it was a way of life which I found thoroughly enjoyable and its all-consuming nature reflected that this was a way of life rather than a job. There are and were always high expectations, but a sense of entitlement was never something that I experienced amongst the pupils I taught, nor was it a characteristic of their parents. The prospect of having to deal routinely with pupils and parents who think that way is most unpleasant and, in my view, never necessary in a properly-led school with integrity in its approach.

Money does not buy success. Success is earned by hard work, commitment, collaborative effort between pupils and a good working relationship with their teachers and parents. This should be clear from the outset of any contacts between any school, its pupils and its parents, whether it’s a state school or an independent school. At CCSS, I’m glad to say that I don’t think I’ve ever had a parent tell me they think the fees are their children’s passport to success. If they did, they’d get pretty short shrift. Right from the outset, we explain what’s needed in terms of their commitment, determination and hard work. We promise we’ll do our bit too, and we know from their feedback how much they appreciate it, but we are clear that no teacher is able to put in what the pupils themselves choose to leave out!

Teachers love helping kids do well. They love teaching kids who share their delight in the subjects they love. These are great motivators, and it’s why my colleagues here love teaching. It gives you the energy to overcome the difficulties and to put in the hours, and the resilience to keep cajoling when your students’ energy and commitment might be flagging.

The fees might be one of the things necessary to get you in to some schools. But they’re completely irrelevant when it comes to what you get out of them.

Where to look next:

  • To find out more about our A Level and GCSE courses, click here
  • We have possibly the best boarding in the UK – have a look at boarding at CCSS
  • Our student profiles give you an insight into what life is like for students at CCSS
  • If you’re interested in seeing which universities our students go to, click here.

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