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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Old Masters

If you work in a state school, like I do, there’s a lot to make you angry when you visit a private school. Not angry at the students or the staff, but angry at the inequality.

The grounds: vast expanses of landscaped rolling lawns, majestic trees, and sweeping paths. A bit different to the quad and the gate. The buildings: glowing red brick, verdigris roofs, polished parquet floors. We’ve got functional classroom blocks. The facilities: studios, theatres, swimming pools. We’ve got a library and a sports field.

Classrooms and a library .

These are wonderful things, and I would do well to remember this. You don’t need anything else in the physical realm to make a great education. All the other things are nice, but they’re not powerful like classrooms and libraries.

There’s something else though. These old private schools, they’ve got history. You can feel it when you walk around them. They’re steeped in it.

Think about how many things have been learned in this 200-year old room. Places have a memory for things like this and we have a sense for it. Can you imagine what it’s like to sit in a seat occupied by a dozen former prime ministers, or to look out of a window looked through by some our country’s greatest writers, historians, and scientists? And for that to be your normal, everyday experience in school?

Beautiful oils of old former masters of the school usually line the walls. These icons of institutionalised learning, of wisdom, intellect, and comfort, gaze down upon us. I imagine the gaze upon the new charges is warm and anticipating, an assumption of great things because that’s what we do here and always have done. Upon me, I imagine a polite welcome, and an understanding that I am, of course, only visiting.

We don’t have any paintings of old masters in my school. We can’t, because the school is only four years old. It was made when two schools in Special Measures were merged into one. We can’t generate a long history of learning to steep ourselves in.

But by god, we make our own history. And we’ve got something that’s far, far older than the oldest private school. A precious, wonderful gift that we treasure and pass to our students. I’m talking, of course, about knowledge. We can’t give our students shiny studios or oak panels but we can give them knowledge and nothing is going to stop us. We’ve got classrooms, and books, and teachers who will let nothing stand in our way. Knowledge belongs to our children as much as it belongs to the elite – and for too long our children have been locked out because of low expectations, poor curricular thinking, and ignorance. That time is over and we are taking back what belongs to our children.

Our children can’t sit in the same chair as Robert Boyle but they will learn their science and understand the world through his work. They can’t write at the same desk as Orwell but they will read his books and claim his work for their own lives. These great minds, the giants on whose shoulders we all stand, these are our old masters. They gaze on us and they are glad.

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