Further education: one school of thought

They could not be more different: a top-rated independent school and a tough institution in the East End of London. But when their heads traded places, both learnt lessons. By Richard Garner
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At first sight, the two schools would appear to have little in common. Brighton College is one of the top-performing independent schools in the country, and charges fees of up to £24,078 a year. In any ranking, it is among the top 10 co-educational schools based on A-level results.

Its former pupils include the renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Michael Hordern, the Sussex and England cricketer Matt Prior and the comedian Tony Hawks.

Kingsford Community School, on the other hand, is in the East End of London and has 89 pupils who are children of refugees or asylum-seekers. Well over half the students do not speak English as their first language.

The school in Beckton has 1,433 pupils aged 11 to 16 and serves a community blighted by knife crime. Four of its pupils have been murdered in recent years – three of them stabbed to death in the past year. One was killed when his father set light to the family car with him and three other children inside.

Brighton and Kingsford have an unusual alliance, however – their headteachers are "trading places" to help run each other's schools. In a unique partnership, Richard Cairns, the headmaster of Brighton College, and Joan Deslandes, the head of Kingsford, are both serving on each other's governing bodies to share their educational expertise.

Both are adamant that it is not a one-way operation. "If I thought that only one side had to learn from the other, I wouldn't have done it," Ms Deslandes said yesterday, adding that she had learned from the independent sector what could be achieved if a school was freed from bureaucracy.

"Richard's work at Brighton College showed me that a dynamic and visionary head could do so much more if unburdened by the endless form-filling and red-tape that can bedevil the state sector," she said. Or, as Mr Cairns put it: "If I want to do something, I can chat with the chairman of the governing body. If they are convinced, it happens."

However, it is not as if Ms Deslandes is not a visionary principal herself. Kingsford, a specialist language college, was the first school in Britain to make the study of Mandarin Chinese a compulsory part of the curriculum. Brighton became the second school to do so last September, and the language is studied by all of its 690 boarding and day pupils, aged 13 to 19.

It was on a trip to Beijing, organised by the Chinese equivalent of the British Council to foster links between the two countries' education systems, that the two headteachers met and hatched their plan. From Mr Cairns' point of view, the link between them has helped to dispel "a few misconceptions" about the state sector. "Private school heads and comprehensive school heads only meet through their representatives and they don't always see eye to eye," he said.

Evidence of that emerged during the six-week tenure of Chris Parry as the chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which ended last week after he told MPs there was a "sectarian divide" between the two sectors. Mr Parry then fanned the flames by giving a newspaper interview in which he said some state pupils were unteachable and their parents ignorant.

Mr Cairns was quick to break ranks from his ISC colleagues – who had agreed a vow of silence over Mr Parry's departure by "mutual consent". In fact, he positively welcomed Mr Parry's disappearance from the scene.

Mr Cairns has no doubt that he is twinned with a good state school. Kingsford fast-tracks its 11- to 14-year-olds through Key Stage Three in two years, rather than three, so they have an extra year to prepare for exams. Inspectors from the standards watchdog Ofsted have described some of Kingsford's work – particularly its development of pupils' self-esteem – as "outstanding".

A more concrete example of the two schools working together is that Brighton College now offers scholarships to Kingsford pupils to study at A-level (something they could not do at Kingsford, which has no sixth form). Three such students have already moved to the South Coast and another three – all of whom will be boarders – are due to start in September. The scholarships are awarded to pupils who will benefit the most, which means those from the most disadvantaged homes. The two headteachers are so convinced of the benefits of working together that Mr Cairns has written to the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, to suggest that others should follow suit. He also believes that every independent school should invite the head of a local comprehensive to join its board of governors. Thankfully, Mr Cairns should be knocking on an open door because ministers have been talking up the idea for the past few months.

When the Schools minister Andrew Adonis first announced plans to name and shame 638 failing schools – where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils obtain five A* to C grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English – he said he would like to see them adopting the "independent school DNA", and perhaps become specialist academies sponsored by the private education sector. Lord Adonis also told the annual meeting of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference – which represents traditional public schools like Eton, Harrow and Brighton College – that he would like private and state schools to go into partnership in "trusts". Meanwhile, in the background, Mr Cairns and Ms Deslandes were already sowing the seeds of their collaboration. Several famous independent schools have rallied to Lord Adonis's call. Among those now sponsoring the Government's flagship academies are Dulwich College, Winchester, Wellington College and Gordonstoun – the Scottish school where Prince Charles was a student.

Brighton and Kingsford may not be doing it the Government's way – there are no formal, structured links between the two – but they have established an effective method of working together which is giving Kingsford's brightest pupils a chance in life they might otherwise never have had. Next September, six teenagers from the deprived London borough of Newham will be sixth-formers at Brighton College – boarding with the aid of scholarships worth £24,000 a year.

One reason that Mr Cairns and Ms Deslandes believe their partnership will work is because both schools have a tradition of radicalism, albeit a fledgling one in Kingsford's case.

Back in the Victorian era, Brighton College pioneered a tradition of allowing the entire student body to elect the school captain. For a few years after its foundation in 1845, it even eschewed corporal punishment – at a time when the sadistic image of most Victorian schoolmasters was characterised by Wackford Squeers in Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.

The college's best-known former headteacher is probably Anthony Seldon, the biographer of Tony Blair and John Major, who remains a passionate advocate of stronger links between private and state education.

Dr Seldon put Brighton on the education map by pioneering an annual conference – to which the great and the good from the world of education, including ministers, were invited to give keynote speeches. Mr Cairns has followed that tradition since he took over, after Dr Seldon left for Wellington College in 2005.

"When I suggested to my governors that we should have Joan on the college council, they were very supportive, although perhaps a little intrigued as to how it would work," Mr Cairns said. "She quickly convinced us that some of our views of state education were outdated.

"We are citizens of one country, engaged in one mission: to realise the potential of every child in our care. It is time to break down the walls of misunderstanding and learn from one another. And the best way of doing that is by inviting the head of a school from the other sector to take a decision-making role in the workings of your own sector. It is wonderfully refreshing."

The links between the schools have already won over one body more often noted for its trenchant criticisms of state schools – the aforementioned Ofsted. In a recent report on Kingsford, the inspectors declared: "The school has introduced a variety of initiatives that have raised the school's profile both locally and nationally. Some, such as the introduction of Mandarin and the link with an independent school to provide scholarships into their sixth-form, are highly innovative."

Brighton College

Fees: £24,078 per year

Founded: 1845

Famous pupils: England wicket-keeper Matt Prior, and the actors Sir Michael Hordern, Miles Malleson and George Sanders

Performance: It is regularly ranked one of the top 10 schools for its percentage of A and B grade passes at A-level. Among co-educational schools, it comes third behind Oundle and Marlborough. It is ninth in the table of single-sex schools.

Best known head: Anthony Seldon, author of biographies of Tony Blair and John Major.

Famous for: The college, founded in 1845, eschewed the use of corporal punishment at a time when the image of Victorian schools was characterised by Wackford Squeers, the head of Dotheboys School, in the Charles Dickens novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Kingsford Community School

Founded: 2000

Fees: Free

Where: Beckton, east London

Famous former pupils: None, but it has high hopes for Tosin Tereba, George Weller and Horatio Georgestone – the three pupils who were first to win £24,000 scholarships to study A-levels at Brighton College.

Academic performance: Last year, 31 per cent of pupils achieved the benchmark of five A* to C passes at GCSE – only 2 per cent above the threshold for inclusion on the hit-list of 638 schools that must improve or face closure.

Famous head: Ofsted, which is not noted for lavishing praise on teachers, says that under Joan Deslandes' leadership, its performance in some areas has been "outstanding".

Interesting fact: Kingsford was the first school in Britain to make lessons in Mandarin Chinese compulsory.

Notoriety: Four Kingsford pupils have been murdered in recent years. Paul Erhahon, 14, Adam Regis, 15, and Stephen Boacchi, 17, were all stabbed to death near their homes. Alpha Mubiangata, 12, was burned alive by his father in their car.