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Repton School Headmaster Mark Semmence’s Recent Comments on Politics and Independent School Education

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Independent education is under scrutiny as never before, with all the major political parties questioning the benefits such as charitable status that the sector has traditionally enjoyed – and some questioning its very existence.  But for many independent schools the principles of widening access to education, generating social mobility and engaging with their community lie at their very foundation.  Repton School was founded in 1557 by a legacy from Sir John Port, a Derbyshire landowner who recognised that the hope and the future of any society is in the hands of the young.  The modern school remains committed to opening its doors to a broad range of pupils through bursaries and scholarships, to sharing excellence, and working in partnership with the wider community, confident that the benefits thus achieved will enhance and enrich the experiences of all.

As Repton School Headmaster Mark Semmence explains, the School consciously aims to produce pupils who are “socially conscious, politically informed and environmentally aware, ready to engage positively with a world that is diverse, truly global and socially mobile.”  Reptonians are given every opportunity to engage with this wider community, both locally and internationally.  For example, Sixth Formers provide after-school clubs, literacy support and forest school activities at local primaries as part of the Community Action programme.  Others volunteer weekly at the Royal Derby Hospital, delivering care on the wards and gaining an invaluable insight into the life of a busy city hospital, while their peers support residents of the local Leonard Cheshire home – sharing activities and learning from each other.  In 2018 over £10,000 was raised for the Neverest Foundation, which offers orthopaedic treatment, medical training and schooling in Nepal, and pupils had the unique experience of joining teams of healthcare professionals going out to the region.  In July 2019 summer another group of Reptonians visited Ghana as part of an ongoing project working with local schools – an experience they unanimously described as ‘life-changing’.

Fundraising goes on throughout the year.  The annual Sale of Work represents a tradition of charitable activity and co-operation between the neighbouring communities of Repton School and Repton village that goes back well over a century.  This year’s event saw pupils, parents, staff and local people coming together for an afternoon of shared fundraising in the school grounds – from local bakers, jewellery makers and entrepreneurs, to children’s games, food stalls and village produce –, accompanied by delicious homemade cakes and musical performances, culminating, appropriately enough, with the Repton Community Choir.  The money raised on the day has been added to funds from a whole variety of school events through the term, including a parents’ Race Night, a ‘Back to the 80s’ cabaret and a whole-school ‘Dress to Impress’, and a joint committee of school and village representatives will now decide which charities are to benefit.  Last year’s total of £18,000 supported around 50 organisations – regional, national and international but with a strong emphasis on the village community and groups working with young people.  Around half of this went to local organisations such as the primary schools, Repton Casuals FC, Repton Village Hall, and the Royal British Legion, as well as funding the work of essential village services for senior residents such as Evergreens and the Lunch Club.

The School sees its mission as one of educating pupils for a life-long habit of philanthropy and they are encouraged to undertake their own initiatives too.  One recent example is a senior pupil who organised a superb charity concert to help fund treatment for a local girl battling a rare cancer, raising over £1000 in an evening.  Others have baked – and consumed! – cake for Macmillan Cancer Support or joined the YMCA Sleep Easy in Derby, spending the night in makeshift cardboard shelters to raise awareness of issues around youth homelessness – an experience which has now led to plans for a major joint fundraising initiative project in 2020.

repton school grounds outside viewRepton pupils are very fortunate to enjoy outstanding facilities but the School ensures that these are shared with a number of local partners, including primary and secondary schools, clubs and community groups.  Nearly 300 youth members of Repton Hockey Club, from U10 to U18, make weekly use of Repton’s astroturf pitches and indoor facilities, helping to open up access to the game, while local primary school children are thrilled to have their weekly swimming lesson in the pool where Adam Peaty trained for the Rio Olympics. The School also seeks out opportunities to work with colleagues in different educational settings, with the focus very much on learning from each other and sharing expertise.  This year Repton staff are supporting applicants to Oxbridge and other competitive courses from maintained-sector schools: recently candidates for medicine, veterinary science and dentistry from Repton and John Port Spencer Academy worked alongside each other in an afternoon of practice interviews, data-handling exercises, manual dexterity, and self-reflection.  Another relationship with a multi-school academy trust is focused on developing digital strategy and sharing best practice in the application of IT in the humanities classroom.  And for the third year Royal Institution Masterclasses in Mathematics and Computer Science will bring together students from a number of local schools with professionals from the NHS, Rolls-Royce and the University of Derby, including a new series aimed at primary-age children and delivered in part by Repton Sixth Formers.  Mark Semmence comments, “Not only does this open up valuable new opportunities for all, but the experience of working alongside one another makes young people appreciate each other’s strengths and create a mindset that is open, respectful and forward-looking.  Everyone gains.”

One point on which the political parties do agree is an aspiration to promote social mobility, and the School works with organisations such as the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation to offer transformational bursaries to young people who can benefit from the opportunities and security that the boarding environment and a Repton education can bring.  It shares the vision of RNCSF that an educational opportunity not only benefits the individual pupil and their family but can provide inspiration for a whole community.

The national debate amongst the politicians also needs to take account of some powerful economic arguments. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) estimates that their schools provide some 300,000 jobs nationally, and Repton School, for example, is the largest local employer, providing the family-friendly employment that many working parents seek.  The abolition of private schools championed on the Left would see the 7% of pupils currently in independent schools entering a maintained sector already very hard pressed – and at estimated additional cost to the taxpayer of £3 billion.  This contrasts starkly with the £11.6 billion which independent schools currently contribute to UK GDP, including £1.6 billion from non-British pupils.  A British education remains a product to which many families around the globe aspire.

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