What can we learn from a top private school?
King’s College School Wimbledon is one of the most academically successful schools in the world. 96% of pupils achieve A*-A at GCSE, and 41 pupils gained A*s in every one of their exams. 25% of their pupils achieved 45 in the International Baccalaureate, which put them in the top 1% globally. 56 pupils won places at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In October, I went to visit.
On a bus on the way just before 8am, I overheard a conversation between two King’s boys. They were practising speaking in Russian for a test. They were learning this as an extra-curricular language and preparing for a trip to Moscow at Easter.
It would be easy to dismiss Kings’ results as impossible for us in the state sector to replicate: their expensive fees, high funding, lucrative facilities, academic selection, high-achieving-only intake, highly invested parents. They own a cricket pavilion, expansive playing fields, a swimming pool and even a boathouse on the Thames that they share with Cambridge University. State schools will never have the money, intake or facilities that they have.
Nevertheless, there is so much that can be learned from Kings, and other private schools, if we approach them in the spirit of an abundance mentality. Their success need not detract from our own in the state sector, but can contribute if we seek out ideas that could help us improve. Here are some of the ideas that I learned from my visit.
- Rigorous academic and cultural curriculum
At Kings, pupils study complex Maths and Science from a young age, challenging literature, sweeping narrative history, theology through scripture, Latin, philosophy, fine art, classical music and theatre written by the greatest dramatists the world has ever seen. The rigour is sky-high. Offering the International Baccalaureate at sixth form forces pupils to study a broad academic curriculum: you cannot give up Maths, English, Science, Humanities or a Language until 18. Michael Merrick puts it beautifully in his post about a year growing up in a private school:
‘We were not only exposed to high culture, but completely immersed in it, day after day, as the backdrop and foreground within which our development took place. Here, aesthetics was not a cerebral pursuit for ageing dons – it permeated everything, and infused us with a sense of awe and humility that forced the eyes, even the soul, to look upwards in its educational pursuits. We were encouraged to reach for the stars, not future salary scales. This exposure to high culture [showed] an instinctive commitment to and formation within a higher aesthetic.’ This is uneasy and unfamiliar territory for many (but by no means all) of us in the state sector.
- Simple traditional instruction
Teachers teach didactically and unashamedly from the front, and lessons are heavily teacher-led; pupils sit in rows facing the front; textbooks, exercise books and pens are the default technology, even up to sixth form; simplicity is the watchword: in English, the main resource is simply class texts. The tasks tackle extended subject practice with limited variety: reading, writing, comparing examples, noting, discussing and summarising. For many veteran teachers at King’s, this seemed to be straightforward, no-nonsense common sense.
- Culture of hard graft
The message that hard work is the only way to succeed is everywhere: in every assembly, pupils give a musical performance, and then explain how hard they had to work to practice, persevere and resist the temptation to give up; in every lesson, the focus is on thinking hard about the subject and maximising pupil cognitive work on tasks; every evening, pupils and parents are clear that they are expected to produce two hours of homework. Hard graft is celebrated and admired.
- Writing guidance
Teaching writing is heavily guided, even up to sixth form. In History, for instance, starting point sentences are shared for each paragraph of complex essays on new material. Extensive written guidance is shared with pupils. Sub-questions within each paragraph and numerous facts are also shared.
- Examples as feedback
Excellent examples are continually shared as feedback. In English, the best essay is photocopied, handed out and meticulously annotated so that others begin to internalise the mental models of success. Exemplars, combined with redrafting, are the simplest way for teachers to give guidance on how to improve.
- Thesis statements
Introductions are the vehicle of choice for improving essay writing. One-sentence thesis statements are set out to frontload and signpost the essay, and this is taught from Year 9. They are very easy to share and compare. A bank of exemplar thesis statements can therefore be built up, with teachers collecting lots of excellent pupil examples.
Extensive homework is set at two hours a night in Year 9. In History and English, extensive written homework is set, collected, marked and returned. Over the holidays, two 2-page essays were expected of Year 10 over the week-long half-term. It was simply scored out of the same denominator (i.e. always out of 25) for comparability. Massive amounts of rigorous, independent subject practice are being done by King’s pupils, which sets them up to achieve A*s.
Pupils frequently enter national subject competitions such as Oxbridge essay prizes. There are sports fixtures, choir and orchestra performances, music concerts, drama performances and debating contests organised throughout the year.
Form tutors go over King’s kindness commitment every term, and it is in every pupil planner. A culture of kindness is seen as a collective responsibility.
- Pupil Leadership
Sixth formers mentor and teach youngsters in Key Stage 3. Sixth former had set up their own drama club, for instance, and produced and performed their own plays. Captains are appointed for sports, debating and general knowledge teams. Prefects are also appointed to take on leadership roles in the school.
When I was there, I asked several pupils what they most liked about the school. All said similar things: ‘the atmosphere: everyone gets on here’, and variations on that theme.
None of these things is irreplicable for a state school; they do not rely on extensive funding or a selective intake. Any school in the state sector can learn from these ambitious, common-sense practices that could help us improve the education we give to our pupils. The challenge for us is to show that scaling Mount Improbable is not impossible.