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The Four Pillars of Excellence

Chair of the Independent Schools Association, Alex Gear, talks about the importance of choosing a school that fits the individual.

The four pillars of excellence – music, sport, academic subjects and art – provide a clear way of assessing the provision that schools afford their pupils. Excellence on the academic front or in sport, music or the arts will, of course, help to set a school apart from others in the region or even nationally. For me, however, I would always want the starting point for selecting a next school for any child to be the appropriateness of the fit for the individual. Ours is a world full of competition. Parents, children and teachers all share in the desire to get the best levels of achievement and performance in as many ways as possible. Let us never forget that the child’s wellbeing and happiness should always come first. In striving for excellence it is important to maintain a balance, particularly for those children who are either younger or socially less confident than others.

All schools that sit under the banner of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) can be proud of the fact there are standards that apply to all members. There is no single kite mark, but I think it is fair to say that if your child attends an ISC school you can be sure that there is academic rigour and will be plenty of provision in the other pillars of excellence, namely sport, music and the arts. Please note that I choose the arts as a generic term that goes beyond music and includes drama, art as a discrete subject and written forms to include poetry and prose. At senior level it is reasonable to expect that there will be subject specialists in all of the above areas who will teach and deliver a strong curriculum diet. State and independent schools have a long tradition of producing results that move between good and outstanding for many pupils year on year. The notion of excellence is the thing that needs to be explored. Many of our senior schools pride themselves on the excellence of provision that they can offer in terms of facilities and staffing.

To set the notion of academic excellence to one side for a moment, let us explore the other three pillars. There are independent schools at senior level across the country that are offering up to 40 sporting options and opportunities to their pupils. Not only can they offer this wide range of activities but they can provide the teaching and coaching staff to deliver a rich sporting programme. In looking at senior schools I would advise parents to consider whether or not such a diverse programme is relevant for your child and how important it is for the individual to have a good and positive experience on the sporting front. The general pattern would be for more options to be available in sport as children move further through the school having undertaken the usual diet of mainstream sporting activities.

Mainstream music teaching is generally of a high standard. At junior level there might be a lack of specialist teaching in some state junior schools, largely depending on individual cases. Access to peripatetic teaching is dependent on cost and timetabling. At the junior level it’s fair to say that a greater number of pupils have a wider option of potential instruments to learn during the regular school year if they attend an independent school. At senior level the same may be the case. Many ISC schools can be rightly proud of their choirs, orchestras, ensembles and their soloists.

As far as the performing arts are concerned, changes in the delivery of GCSE and A level drama have, perhaps over the last few years, given a different emphasis to the performance elements. Timetable demands make it difficult for many schools to incorporate production drama into their calendar. Across both sectors, I know there is a lot of passion about the importance of school drama in performance, from the local nativity play to the full-blown senior production. The high levels of staffing and the impressive nature of many drama facilities, from studios to large professionally equipped theatres, does afford many independent schools to move further in that direction of excellence that we all strive for. As far as the delivery of art as a discrete subject is concerned, all of the aforementioned principles will apply. The diversity of options within that curriculum area known generically as ‘art’ will be enhanced within the curriculum of many of our independent schools.

Academically, it is important to assess a school’s performance by looking at the value- added progress child by child rather than straight GCSE and A level grades. Certain schools are highly selective. The pupil-teacher ratios are a significant factor in pupil success. The range of options, and the nature of the courses on offer, need to be considered by prospective parents at the point of entry into a senior school. At junior level it is important to see the next school placements for the leaving pupils at either 11 or 13. The number of scholarships and awards being offered is worth considering as well. My personal view is that the child is happiest in the best-fit school rather than being drawn to the school that offers the biggest financial incentive by way of scholarship. Financial considerations should be met by bursaries. A scholarship should not be a badge of pride to be jointly worn by parents and children, but should recognise the ability of the individual.

I conclude by referring back to the four pillars of excellence – academic subjects, sport, music and art (the arts) – as I see them. A well-rounded child will be given opportunities throughout their school life to be challenged in all of these areas. To achieve excellence requires a challenge and allowing children to fail sometimes along the way is a significant contributing factor to final success.

Alex Gear is Headmaster at Oakhyrst Grange School in Caterham, Surrey, and Chair of the ISA (Independent Schools Association).
www.isaschools.org.uk

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