Northern Independents Fight Back – Written for Times North www.timesnorth.co.uk 15th April 2014

Independent Schools in the North of England have long been tainted by the image of their better known peers in the South such as Eton for being elitist, if not anachronistic, a view reinforced by Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw claiming they were all “marooned on an island of privilege.”

This has been further compounded by the media which constantly uses photographs of boater-wearing Etonians, if not the excesses of the Bullingdon toffs, to illustrate coverage of the sector regardless of geography.

Now the Northern Independents are fighting back, eager to point out that there really is a north-south divide when it comes to their sector thanks to their no-nonsense Northern roots and their links to business rather than simply the City.

Eager to dispel what he sees as a myth and promote the view that that there is a real difference in the North is Andrew Fleck, Headmaster of Sedbergh School and the Chairman of the North East regional group of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference.

Today, HMC is the major partner within the Independent Schools Council and its membership is considered to reflect the crème de la crème of the Independents; many of its members are the Headteachers of Public Schools.

“One of my priorities in representing the North is to go down to London and let people know the North is different and that they need to sit up and pay attention,” insists Andrew Fleck.

He makes the case that Northern Independents are without exception strong in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. Engineering is a common university destination for many students, probably the product of the region’s history.

Fleck cites numerous examples of Independents in the North having strong links with the business community including the Grammar School at Leeds being finalists this year in the Bank of England lending rate competition (having won it last year) and Bradford Grammar which has forged strong links with local industries.

“We know that all businesses need entrepreneurial and inter-personal skills which is where our schools perform particularly strongly. Our pupils are bright, literate and numerate with good exam results; they also have a wide range of skills which will enable them to contribute in the business world. All our schools run work placement schemes, sometimes using a network of alumni.”

Nor does he overlook the point that the pupils at Independents may be the sons and daughters of successful businesspeople, so it is often ingrained in their DNA. He himself comes from a commercial background in that his father ran Spiller’s Homepride and Spiller’s Pet Foods in the 1970s.

So what is the key difference between Independent school students in the North and South?

“Our pupils are very grounded, they are well aware of the need to go out and make a living and well prepared to do so. And another important element of our work is to inculcate the importance of contributing to their community. They have a wide network of friends from all over the North but they don’t have the veneer of southern sophistication which you find in some of the great southern schools”

The fact that Fleck is headmaster of Sedbergh School in Cumbria places him in a unique position to take a stand for the North, his school was described by The Tatler as being the Eton of the North. And Sedbergh – one of only two full boarding schools in the North, the other being Ampleforth – has connections with Eton going back to 1525 when it was founded by the Provost of Eton.

Tradition runs through such ancient schools as Sedbergh, something that Andrew Fleck knows well, though he is far from being a traditionalist himself, having started a career as an expedition canoeist, a role that took him round the world.

“I was inspired by people like Pete Boardman who made his living in the mountains and hoped I would do the same on the water. I canoed around Newfoundland, along the whole coast of arctic Norway and around Japan. But it became evident that I was doing something which was becoming increasingly dangerous – friends had died. So after four years, I went to teach canoeing at an outdoor centre. I found that working with young people was worthwhile and important so I became a teacher.”

Now he has even found time to enter the business world himself when he is not focusing on Sedbergh; running Fibre GarDen, a community-owned broadband delivery company which is building a fibre-optic network to remote rural communities near Sedbergh.  And his wife, Anne runs her own technology business. Eggbase provides business software for the British egg industry and is growing new markets in Ireland and Europe.

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