In Praise of QPCS

I originally wrote this for Queens Park’s magazine ‘Shout’ as part of the school’s 21st birthday celebrations in 2010. Since – for some unfathomable reason – I still feature on a Google search result for QPCS, I thought this might be a suitable place to post it:


By rights, the modern world ought not to exist at all. Mass democracy, votes for women, cinema, the contraceptive pill, multiculturalism, even Wikipedia – all of these things were once denounced and feared as terrible experiments which would unleash anarchy into ordered society. The comprehensive school was no different. For some, it remains the archetypal bogeyman of a collapsing civilisation – a ‘broken Britain’ – where academic standards have collapsed, violence is epidemic and poor bright children spend their time in a state of either permanent boredom or fear. Or maybe both.

Most people don’t think like this, of course. Quite right too, because it’s nonsense, as five minutes spent at Queens Park will confirm. But it is remarkable how much anxiety still surrounds secondary education today, mostly on the part of parents confronted by a bewildering array of media reports, league tables and ruthless competition for a ‘good school’. Well here’s the good news: Queens Park is, by any conceivable standard, a good school. It’s staffed by many exceptional teachers, delivers top exam results for those who work for them and – most importantly – remains a warm and friendly community, proud of its diversity, and producing a generation of young people who are not afraid of each other’s differences.

This is as true today as it was almost a decade ago when I first stepped through the doors of Queens Park. I feel incredibly privileged to have grown up with the school – we are, after all, the same age – and in the true spirit of comprehensive education, Queens Park taught me far more than can be expressed in grades and exam results. It’s the little things I remember as much as anything. Drama lessons. Learning how to win over a class over in mock courtroom battles. The sweet spot to stand during a game of rounders if you wanted to avoid embarrassing PE mishaps.

And we also did a surprising amount of what is uninspiringly termed ‘extra-curricular activities’, going far beyond the traditional school trip to a museum. Thanks entirely to Queens Park, I ended up doing everything from body boarding off the coast of Devon, presenting a business plan for our very own company to a panel of judges in a Goldman Sachs sponsored competition – we got through to the finals, by the way – and peering out over New York from the top of the Empire State building. All of these experiences, combined with years of hard work and good teaching, were as good a preparation for Cambridge as you’re ever likely to get.

Because the truth is that Cambridge and Queens Park are much more similar than you might imagine. There might be an age gap between the two of roughly 780 years, but both are institutions which value individuality, determination and personal motivation. Each demand that you are flexible and can think on your feet. And at both, as long as you enter in a spirit of hope rather than fear, you’ll end up making friends across a huge range of backgrounds – without even noticing. I loved every minute of them both.

But as we celebrate the school’s birthday, and look back fondly over past successes, it’s more important than ever that we continue to look forward and strive for more. The modern reputation of QPCS as a success story is well deserved, but that doesn’t mean that our education system can’t do more for the sake of all young people, perhaps evolving in dramatic and surprising ways. In particular, the school’s efforts to inspire students from all backgrounds to aim for higher education are to be applauded, and have transformed the lives of many who might not have even considered university. But we also know that university isn’t for everyone, and not everyone’s interested in traditional three-year degree courses. What else can we offer to make sure that young people receive a tailor-made education that’s right for them?

These questions are not the responsibility of the school alone to answer, of course. But as a successful comprehensive, Queens Park does have a wealth of experience in addressing the needs of students with many different talents and interests, coupled with the courage to change and try new things. And so I sincerely hope that, after a further 21 years, the school will not seem too comfortable for returning alumni. Still friendly, yes, but other things will move on – and not just faces, but buildings, teaching styles, the curriculum and technology too.

Apart from anything else, it would be the perfect excuse to become an old curmudgeon and complain that everything’s gone downhill since my day…