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Heads Jo Ward and Mark Mortimer with their students

Is the grass greener?

ITV's School Swap shows many of the schools' differences lie outside the classroom, says editor Stephanie Broad

Posted by Stephanie Broad | August 28, 2015 | People, policy, politics

What happens when state and private school pupils experience each others’ education for a week? ITV’s recent documentary sought to explore the differences between the independent and maintained sectors in School Swap: The Class Divide.

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. Despite Bemrose having 300 more pupils than Warminster, it has almost half the budget - £5 million compared to Warminster’s £9 million.  

Bemrose has GCSE A to C grade pass rates of under 50% and an admissions policy that means more than half of new students don’t speak English as their first language. Jo took over the school when it was ‘failing’ in 2004; now it boasts a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating and a thriving community. 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. Head Mark previously served in the army and was a boarder as a child: “I’m institutionalised!” 

There is some appetite to address preconceptions on both sides. Bemrose student Nazh, who was originally from Syria but moved to Britain in 2011, wants 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.”

Xander, from Warminster, 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.” 

Jo Ward is intrigued to find out why private school graduates dominate the top jobs in the country, and how some of its practices could be applied to Bemrose. “Education is the key to unlocking the inequalities in our society,” she says.

Jo and Mark, during the two episodes, discuss what makes a good education. Jo believes that the teaching is the same as at Bemrose, but they agree on the benefits of boarding: “…at 3pm or 4.30pm, when the school day ends at Bemrose, no matter how good the experience that I provide for them, they go home…I guess my magic wand would be to make all schools boarding rather than demolish all the private schools, so I've moved a long way." They also both try to have a strong presence in school life. 

There are differences that both find hard to ignore. Bemrose has an erratic pupil roll, with students joining and leaving at different points of the school year. At Warminster, all prospective students interview with the Head and are handpicked to ensure they are a good fit. Warminster students stand when a teacher enters the room; Bemrose has a dedicated ‘time-out’ room for bad behavior. It is also found that the Bemrose students have a much lower reading age, and a shorter school day. Jo remarks that the later finish for private students might help them to prepare for the world of work.

Let’s break a few stereotypes 

The pressures on the quality of teaching are also different in the schools. For Warminster, the high fees mean an expectation is set for pupils’ high achievement. At Bemrose, the school is under pressure from Ofsted and ever-changing government scrutiny. 

The students settle differently into their new environments. Warminster student Jon is pleased to find that he is in the top set for Maths at Bemrose, whereas he has been entered for Foundation level at his usual school. This gives him a welcome confidence boost. Nazh is not convinced with her new classmates, seeing them as competition for her future Oxbridge place, but Brett feels at home and thinks that boarding school might just give him the motivation and support he needs. As a white British boy, Brett is part of a disillusioned and under-performing demographic at Bemrose. Following his mock interview with Mark, Brett has since been offered a place at Warminster – we will soon find out if he accepts. 

In the conclusion, Jo concedes that private school, while offering the same quality teaching as state schools, can offer a lot of extras that give them the advantage. From formal dinners to extra-curricular astronomy to families that really prioritise their childrens’ education, it’s no surprise to her that these children have an excellent life after school. 

What did you think of School Swap: The Class Divide? Let us know!

Image: ITV    

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