A view from the inside…. teaching and working in Independent Schools

AH blog

One of the reasons why many teachers choose to work in UK independent schools is for the breadth of opportunities they offer, not only to the pupils but for staff too.

Independent schools in the UK are synonymous with the phrase ‘a broad curriculum’. The standard curriculum subjects are taught, of course, but it is in the extra-curriculum opportunities that many schools excel, afforded by the longer days (typically 8.30am to 4.00/4.30pm for juniors and 8.30am to 5.00/5.30pm for seniors, though some may finish as late as 7.00pm).

Sport is often taught three or four times per week, and that’s not including the weekly fixtures on a Wednesday (and often on Saturday mornings too). Many independent senior schools offer CCF (Combined Cadet Force) and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. After-school clubs, often called ‘enrichment programmes’, thrive; many schools boast a list of clubs and societies as long as your arm, from debating society to hockey practice, theatre club to bushcraft in the forest or book club in the library.

Such a busy school experience is energising for staff as well as pupils. There is the added benefit of students seeing their teachers teaching adverbial phrases or simultaneous equations one minute and then how to build a fire with only flint and cotton wool, or how to plant vegetable seeds, the next. School trips are a frequent treat and can often include destinations as far afield as a ski trip to the Alps, a cricket tour to South Africa or an art and culture trip to New York’s galleries.

What is the reason for so much extra-curricular activity? Why pack so much into the week? The answer lies in the aims and values of many independent schools, which enshrine the belief that academic advancement should go hand-in-hand with character development, team-building and preserving that sense of awe and wonder with which all children are blessed from an early age. Creativity, confidence and character need not be mutually exclusive to academic progress. When character is tested and confidence is built on the sports field, or on the climbing wall, or on a theatre stage, the benefits are certainly felt in the academic classroom too.

But it would be disingenuous to say that such an action-packed week does not place heavy demands on staff; it does. Friendships, families, hobbies and interests often have to take a back seat until the end of term comes and the school ‘submarine’ surfaces again. But the rewarding and energising experience that is found between the holidays is unmatched in many other professions. You get out of it what you put in.

Class sizes are often smaller than those found in many state-maintained schools – and this is of huge benefit, not only to the pupils who enjoy closer individual attention, but also when it comes to marking exercise books on a Sunday night – but remember, for each of those fifteen students in your class there is a parent or parents who are paying a lot of money, and often making considerable sacrifices, to educate them with you; not all parents are flushed with the kind of wealth that makes school fees seem like spare change. That’s a caricature, long gone.

All parents in every school care deeply about their child’s education, whether in a state-maintained school or an independent one, but be prepared for managing the very high expectations of the fee-paying parent – expectations which may sometimes even be in excess of their child’s actual potential. They are paying you to enable their child to earn those top academic grades. Anyone who works in independent school education knows all too well the nature of the demanding parent. It is an enormous investment after all: some schools charge their parents in excess of £30,000 per annum. And those parents expect value for money – every day, every term.

All teachers are accountable to their parents, in any school, but there is a fundamental difference in independent schools – the parents are paying your salary. So try not to slip up. The good news is many of today’s parents are paying for precisely the things which motivate staff too – that broad curriculum and the excellent rapport that exists between teachers and students, afforded by small classes and a first-class pastoral care system, making independent schools a most rewarding place in which to build a career.

Andrew Hammond has seventeen years experience of managing and motivating staff within the education sector. He has worked as a Headmaster, Deputy Head (Academic), Housemaster, Director of Studies, Head of English and Classteacher. Andrew Hammond works with school leaders, teachers and pupils, to identify the individual motivations driving them, to achieve more effective communication, better teamwork, greater productivity and ultimately more satisfaction at work, and therefore at home.

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