Teaching in private and state schools: the differences, priorities and styles

Teach First graduate Orla Douglas (writing under a pseudonym) shares her experiences of teaching on both sides of the education system. This is from the Guardian…

Why have I always felt that state schools educate children better? After teaching in private and maintained schools, I began thinking about the differences between the two.

I began teaching several years ago, through a graduate programme that targeted underperforming state schools in challenging circumstances. Teach First teachers are trained to deal with poor behaviour, schools going through rapid change and also the difficulties of teaching with limited resources. Despite our training the first year of teaching was a shock to my system. The long hours I needed to plan lessons, the long working day and the tumultuous lesson-to-lesson transition made for an exhausting career choice. But like many other Teach First teachers, I really enjoyed my work.

I felt so motivated by the mission of Teach First, and genuinely wanted to make a difference. I had good relationships with the children I taught, some who lived in terrible conditions, and tried to deal with the regular bad behaviour in my school with positivity and care. I was promoted and began managing a section of the citizenship department and nine other teachers. But as a trained geography teacher I yearned to teach students about my subject. The school then decided to wipe humanities completely from its curriculum. At this point I decided to leave.

When I resigned there were limited jobs available, as the credit crunch had just begun to bite. Having been completely bowled over during my interview, I accepted a job in an impressive private school. This was a system completely unknown to me, and the decision to accept the job sat rather uneasily with me at the time. I had never experienced any independent education. As a complete novice, stepping into a marble hallway, enormous classrooms and beautiful grounds, I felt that I should jump at the chance to see the other side of education. I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.

By the end of my first term, I had discovered a series of clear differences between state and private schools, and over the past few years have gradually acclimatised to my new working environment. Yet I still wanted to return to the state sector, despite the lucrative pay and promotion prospects. What is it that I miss? Many things.

During one lesson in my first term in the private school, having set a question for students to answer, I noticed that no one was working. I asked why, and a student replied: “You haven’t told us what to write.” It became clear to me at the school that some students expected me to teach the answers to exam questions. Quite reasonable, you might think. Teachers should provide support for students in passing exams, and help them to obtain the best grade possible. But at this school it seemed like most teachers taught direct answers to exam questions on a regular basis. They went through the answer using long sheets containing facts, details and plans for the answer they had to write. Put simply, if you wanted students to complete any work you needed to tell them exactly what to include. I had not expected such apathy, in fact, I had been given the impression that this school was high achieving. The reality was most students weren’t capable of the high grades expected of them, unless teachers effectively coached them for every aspect of the exam.

On the other hand, pastoral care was given highest priority. Every child belonged to a house. Within the house, tutors and masters gave detailed and thoughtful care to each child. Every child really did matter, because teachers had the time to take care of student’s individual needs. Any child experiencing loss, divorce, illness or eating disorders was supported. Once when a boy’s grandmother died and it was announced in a whole staff meeting by the headmistress, who wanted us all to be as sensitive as possible. This couldn’t have happened in my previous school, there simply wasn’t time…

More at:  Teaching in private and state schools: the differences, priorities and styles

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