Courage and Conviction

… that is the independent school DNA.

The motto of Bolton School is ‘Mutare Vel Timere Sperno’, which means ‘I spurn to change or to fear’. When I first got to know this motto it seemed slightly negative – why would a forward looking school worry about change, even perhaps reject it, and what exactly would we be fearing?

Then it occurred to me that the motto is taken from the arms of the lever families of Bolton – probably first from around the time of the Civil War. Suddenly, in that context, the motto makes sense and is most appropriate. At a time when religious conviction led to death then spurning change, keeping with your belief, and not fearing the consequence soon becomes my modern translation of the motto as Courage and Conviction.

There has been much talk about what makes independent schools successful. Andrew Adonis spoke of looking for our DNA, the academy movement seeks to replicate what it sees as the key features of independent schools. There is much talk of the importance of independent schools engaging with local education to help improve things for all. I would argue that the intangible difference being pursued, the essence of our schools, are strong held convictions, the courage to stick with what we know works for us whatever the circumstances and to innovate without fear.

One example would be the separate sciences. When the fashion moved to science rather than physics, chemistry and biology most independent schools knew this was not for them – their conviction was clear and they had the courage to stick with what worked. They did so against the tide – at the peak hundreds of thousands of students took science exams and only tens of thousands separate sciences.  Overtime the tide has turned, separate sciences are popular in state schools and the fashion shifts. What would have happened if the independent sector had not had courage and conviction to continue with the separate sciences?

Another example would be the move to IGCSE assessment. Independent schools, with courage and conviction, started this move when they saw some GCSE courses just were not suitable for their students. Now many state schools have followed. In this and many other examples, courage and conviction lead to innovation that is quite simply near impossible in the state system.

The DNA analogy does work, but not in the simple sense that if found success can be replicated. It works in these two ways. Independent schools, with courage and conviction, can preserve genetic code that will be needed in the future as fashions squeeze common sense aside as in science teaching. They can also innovate the genetic code, without fear of what mutation may be produced, because they will go forward with conviction where the consensus seeks cautious approaches leading, as they often do in species, to extinction or blandness.

The country needs a thriving independent sector in education both to innovate and preserve.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.