Bursaries are our duty – they change lives, says Simon Everson, head of Merchant Taylors’ School
When making a moral case for bursaries, the temptation is to take an intellectual route. Perhaps one might survey the recent educational landscape, with special reference to the loss of assisted places. Perhaps one might focus upon the ever-increasing fees demanded by the private sector, rendering access impossible to all but a gilded few. Perhaps one might reach for the utilitarian or Kantian ethics that advocate universally excellent education for all. However, I begin elsewhere with an image of an angry young man in my classroom, holding a baseball bat.
For me, each bursary is more than a statistic or an example in an argument. Each bursary has a face, each represents a life altered and shaped towards better and happier outcomes. I think, then, of the ones that got away, the pupils I couldn’t help.
Let me take you back in time to the early 1990s. My memory of the modern estate that my first school served is less than positive. The first school to employ me was a community comprehensive in a howling concrete wilderness inhabited by a population that had been economically abandoned.
Carl was intelligent but irrepressible. We got on, so he humoured me as his young English teacher. In other subjects, he used his quick-wittedness to amuse himself at the expense of his teachers. I had been pleased with the B grades the GCSE Results Day had brought Carl in English, but was not surprised that his performance in other subjects had prevented any progression to the sixth form. What, then, brought him to my classroom the following September, angrily swinging his baseball bat?
‘What are you doing, Carl?’
‘I got nothing but lousy grades in my GCSEs, so I’m here to smash the school’s windows.’
‘It’s not the school’s fault that you got bad grades, Carl. It’s the government’s fault. They’re the ones who set the exams and made it harder for you.’
Carl lowered the bat. ‘Where do I go to smash their windows?’
Carl went away. He never had a chance. I have never seen him again.
Or what about Lee, in another class? Lee was all inward anger – though he was a dogged worker. Essays were on time, but on ragged scraps of varied sheets of paper.
I remember the day he presented himself in my classroom tightly bundled up in his black puffer jacket. The school rules did not permit the wearing of jackets and coats in the classroom so I asked him to remove it. It took three attempts before he even acknowledged my presence, and then he spoke only to refuse to comply.
I could have raised my voice and issued some form of punishment, but some instinct prompted me to draw him aside and speak softly. ‘Why can’t you remove your jacket?’ I asked.
‘We’ve only got one shirt, and my brother is wearing it today,’ he replied. The lesson resumed, and the jacket stayed on. I involved social services. Later on, Lee dropped out of school anyway.
I am now the head of a very different school. I could not save Carl or Lee in the moment that our lives intersected. However, I know both would have made it at my current school. The young men of my memories would both be about 45 years old now.
If I can’t go back and help them, then I feel a burning duty to try to do something for those that come after them. That is my moral case for bursaries.
We must think of the generations of young men and women who might have had their needs met, who might have escaped a challenging home life, who might have shaped a brighter future, who missed the opportunity to become most fully themselves. They must be better served.
Simon Everson is head of Merchant Taylors’ School Northwood, London
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