No school is an island

Posted on: 09 Apr 2014

By James Priory, Headmaster of Portsmouth Grammar School

A report published by the ISC shows that independent schools support a £9.5 billion gross value added contribution to Britain’s GDP- larger than the City of Liverpool or the BBC.

They support 227,000 jobs, one for every two pupils and generate £3.6 billion in tax revenues, according to analysis by Oxford Economics, the global economics consultancy.

More striking still, however, is the extraordinary number of ways in which independent schools add value to their communities and not simply by sponsoring academies. This report makes Michael Gove’s Berlin Wall look more like the Golden Gate.

As the longest running school in the UK’s only island city, the last thing anyone at Portsmouth Grammar School wishes us to be is an island in our own community.

Portsmouth is a city rich in history and culture, but it has also suffered from impoverishment of opportunity and low aspiration. Dickens and Brunel were both born here and even baptised in the same font. Sherlock Holmes first exercised his powers of deduction in the notebooks of Arthur Conan Doyle when he was a doctor in Southsea. Mary Rose, HMS Victory and the iron-clad HMS Warrior 1860 jostle for attention in the dockyard.

And yet, according to the Sutton Trust, Portsmouth has one of the lowest success rates in the country in inspiring its young people to attend the top 30 UK universities.

Sixteen years ago, PGS launched a city-wide partnership with, amongst others, the City Council, the University, the Royal Navy, the Historic Dockyard and Portsmouth Cathedral to launch a city-wide arts festival. Our aim was to put Portsmouth on the cultural map and at the same time to educate and enthuse an ever widening audience of young people.

From small, but ambitious beginnings come great festivals. In ten days in June last year the Portsmouth Festivities hosted nearly 70 events in 40 venues across the city. Over 12,000 people attended ticketed events – a ten per cent increase from the previous year – and over 30,000 people took part in or attended free events in public spaces.

The school remains the principal sponsor and supports the Festivities by employing the General Manager and hosting the Festivities office on our High Street site. But we also enjoy success in attracting support from local businesses. In the last five years alone, well over £500K has been raised in business sponsorship and Arts Council England support.

One project stands out as an example of what we are trying to achieve. In 2013, to coincide with the opening of the stunning new Mary Rose Museum, the Portsmouth Festivities commissioned composer Alexander L’Estrange to write a major new musical work inspired by Henry VIII’s famous war ship for a mass choir of children and adults.

Over 500 people took part, including children from the Mary Rose School for pupils with additional needs and amateur singers from local choral groups. At least a third of the choir had never performed in public before let alone been part of a world premiere. “I really enjoy singing with people older than me,” wrote one child afterwards. “It makes me feel more confident.” Portsmouth audiences voted Ahoy! Sing for the Mary Rose one of the cultural events of the year.

As the Festivities itself becomes more confident so we are enjoying continuing to challenge our audience’s expectations. Whether it’s free runners leaping over the altar in a Parkour display in Portsmouth Cathedral, or the entire astronaut crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis appearing in Fratton Park stadium with thousands of school children, we feel we are making new things happen in a city with an evocative past.

In this year’s Festivities from 20-29 June, we have commissioned a film project called Faces, in which local people will bring to life the voices and stories of Portsmouth at the time of the outbreak of the First World War. The 3D effect film will be projected outside the Historic Dockyard in the shadow of HMS Victory. Young people will be taking part in space-inspired drama and science workshops as part of a National Astronomy conference. And the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, will be telling young people how books can liberate the imagination, even in prison.

As a school, we feel hugely energised to be part of so many creative and educational partnerships. Our pupils have the chance to showcase their talents, but importantly they also learn to appreciate the ideas and skills that pupils from other schools and community groups bring to collaborative work. Teachers find it exhilarating to be part of a much wider educational project, some describing it to me as the highlight so far in their careers, and others as the best In-Service Training they have experienced.

As ISC’s report demonstrates, enterprises such as the Festivities are bringing significant economic value to our communities. Not only are we staging over 70 cultural events every year, attracting visitors to Portsmouth, employing and training people in education and the arts, we are also raising aspirations in a city with much to be proud of- the value of which is probably beyond the measurement of any economic impact report.

About ISC Press Office

The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.