CHAIRMAN’S KEYNOTE SPEECH – HMC ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2017

1 October 2017
Posted by HMC Press Office

Delivered by Chris King, HMC Chairman and Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School

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Requests to speak to Chris King to Sue Bishop on 07787 294808 or at [email protected]

Welcome, Members, partners, guests and journalists, to the 2017 HMC annual conference. Belfast is a city synonymous in many of our minds I’m sure with the Northern Ireland peace process; a vibrant city which symbolises what conflict resolution can achieve. Whilst it is a hard and long road to take – and even now has many twists and turns – few would say it has not been worthwhile.

As we meet here today to consider the achievements and place in society of the some of the UK’s greatest schools, I will be taking inspiration from that journey. I am hoping that over the coming years education will experience a new period of unity, with independent and state school colleagues working evermore closely together to tackle some of the most significant problems facing education today.

The bloodshed and bitterness of the Northern Ireland conflict is, of course, not a direct parallel. But there are lessons to learn. As Jonathan Powell has just told us, all roads to reconciliation require leadership, compromise, a willingness to engage and a relentless focus on a better future. This is a far cry from the tired, simplistic, politicised attacks to which independent education is regularly subjected. There is a better way.

And make no mistake, a more collaborative, less aggressive approach is urgently needed.

Young people are, as we know, facing both global and national upheaval. At home, public funding is severely constrained; the EU referendum and General Election uncovered considerable inter-generational tensions; Britain is trying to re-shape its identity outside the EU; and the emerging generation are required to make life choices far removed from those of their parents. Across the world, political tensions are building and further waves of technology, not least artificial intelligence, seem set to disturb established patterns of occupation and livelihood. What better time, therefore, to put our efforts in to collaborative working across schools?

I have the unusual benefit -  some might say burden -  of taking on a second full term as HMC Chair.  It is true that we have come far since I last addressed this conference in 2015; our partnerships, our levels of fee assistance and our reputation, especially for leading the way on good mental health in schools, have all grown. So, has our international footprint, borne out of global respect for our academic rigour, excellent pastoral care and our readiness to innovate.  After various false starts during the last twelve months, the Government is now showing itself more willing to work with us, to understand what we offer and help encourage useful collaborations.

In other ways, progress is slow. In October 2015, there had just been a general election and the political dust was settling. I spoke then about the challenges facing young people:  another set of guinea pig exams; growing concerns about teenage wellbeing; worries about securing a good university place; and changing career patterns leading in directions uncharted by their teachers and parents. Well – here we go again.

To help young people cope, we need to move on from sterile arguments about types of school and league tables to a much more important conversation about how to teach and how to learn in the 21st century.

Now is the time to start remoulding the education debate. Many of us would agree with our colleagues in ASCL that a long term national vision for education is urgently needed. Every head in this room has a part to play.

Because HMC schools have more to offer British education than ever before. I will lay out in this speech how we are already woven into the fabric of many state schools, offering help in ways which are unrecognised publicly, but recognised locally as hugely valuable at a time of scarce resources. How our schools transform the lives of young people, including many from less well-off families, and how we contribute to a better education for all on a national scale. And how we stand ready to contribute even more – but can only do so with a willingness to engage from all involved.

We know these solutions must be forged by school leaders who understand what happens in classrooms as well as boardrooms. Who know that reform is unlikely to work unless those who have dedicated their lives to education are consulted. And who are willing to pool their experience.

This is not therefore the time to descend into dogma and division.  Instead, let’s allow the needs of pupils, not politics to drive educational reform.

So today I am asking for a cessation of hostilities against independent schools, so we can all stop wasting time on needless battles and instead work together to improve standards and raise aspiration.

We recognise, of course, that independent schools operate from a position of strength. We can provide each pupil with the resources they need; we have the freedom to determine our own curricula, and we have the scope to innovate that comes with independence from central government.  With these advantages come the civic duty to share insights with, and learn from, our less well-resourced state school colleagues.

And the good news is, that away from the headlines and hurly burly of politics, school leaders are getting on with it. HMC and other associations are already working evermore closely with our state school colleagues.

For example, every one of us knows the central importance of more effective teacher recruitment and retention.  Whilst we are fortunate in HMC schools to offer a great working environment to our staff, attracting the brightest and the best to teach is the single biggest problem facing education. And it’s one we can help with. Already, our schools are involved in running a national teacher training programme in Modern Foreign Languages, and a new version for Physics is in the final stages of planning, lead by Sharon Cromie, Head of Wycombe High School supported by GSA and HMC.

At the root of what we have to offer lies the institutional qualities which all HMC schools – and the best in the state sector hold dear. A strong sense of community and continuity allows us to provide young people with a sense of identity and stability, which can build their confidence and equip them to deal with the opportunities and threats thrown up by an uncertain future.

This enduring strength of purpose, combined with openness to the excitement and idealism of the lives that teenagers live, is the stuff of educational chemistry.  It can’t be measured or put in a league table. But much more importantly, it sparks energy, commitment and a hunger to learn which, as QI’s John Lloyd will tell us later, can be genuinely life transforming.

I am well aware that this independent spirit and relentless focus on what’s best for children can be a thorn in the side of those who suffer from political myopia. But it is precisely this which makes our schools valuable, allowing us to be evidence-based, free from fear or favour and answerable for our effectiveness directly to our governors and the parents and pupils who can choose to go elsewhere.

There is no question that we do more than our critics suggest – or perhaps know. But we are not deaf to criticism, and are willing to work for the public good not only as charities, but as citizens and educationalists – also recognising the benefit of great partnerships to both sides and the value of living harmoniously in our communities and wider society.

It is partly our fault, because historically we have tended to under-report what we actually contribute. That’s understandable, because when we do, we often see our impact being hidden beneath indifference from most journalists and antipathy from many politicians.

So now is the time to take responsibility for celebrating the good we do, and building on what we have learnt, to make a bigger difference.  Starting here.

When put together, it is already a formidable list.  HMC schools in Britain contribute the following: the supply of teaching, mentoring and facilities to state schools; formation and management of successful state academies; fee assistance to less well-off families; free places for deprived children, including those in care; considerable contribution to the economy; sanctuary for curriculum subjects which would otherwise disappear; research and national programmes of work to improve the exam system, teenage mental health and safe passage into life after school. And we offer all this at the same time as educating our own pupils to make a consistent and valuable contribution to society.

And that is all before we set our sights internationally. The charitable donations to developing countries; the free places for international students from poorer European countries; and the substantial contribution HMC schools make to the UK’s global trade and reputation.  All are little known but critical aspects of the value we offer.

Threaten our schools and Britain would be the poorer – in income, ideas, innovation and international influence.

This is not rhetoric. It is based in the reality of long-term, sustainable projects and a contemporary global reputation established over many decades.

Firstthere are school partnerships. The facts are these. Around 10,000 different projects between independent and state schools are currently operating in the UK, benefitting 175,000 state school pupils as well as those from independent schools. This is large scale activity which grew by 7.5% last year.

Every single HMC school is involved. The range is already huge, spanning free teaching in hard to resource subjects, such as Classics, Modern Languages and Physics, and shared activity in Drama, Music, Sport and events, drawing in thousands of people from local communities and around the country.

And this is work with real depth, as well as scale. The Grammar School at Leeds for example, runs a staggering 200 projects, including a unique scheme to help a local MAT acquire one of their sites to create a new free school. At the same time, Sue Woodroffe leads innovative programmes such as enabling autistic young people to attend internships – leading to five full time jobs – and supporting looked-after children in a way which has been described by Leeds City Council as trail-blazing.

This is important work that really makes a difference – and we are getting better at assessing the impact, as we must. At Bolton School for Boys, Philip Britton is measuring not only the amount of activity and children reached, but the depth of engagement and sustainability.

ISC’s new Celebrating Partnerships booklet will an important step in explaining and celebrating what we truly offer.

Such serious, long-term work couldn’t be further from the spinning of yarns about independent schools being “in crisis” over gains made by state schools. Not only do our own results speak for themselves, but we are offering to help nurture that very state school success.

We know that partnerships take long term commitment, and that state schools don’t always want the help we offer. The  recently-announced System Partnership Unit – set up inside the DfE to help facilitate further inter-sectoral working – is a welcome development.  We thank Education Secretary Justine Greening for emerging from the clamour of the election to demonstrate an understanding that true partnerships need the flexibility to answer specific community needs in a way which speaks to a school’s strengths. She appears, like school leaders, to be motivated by results – projects… That.  Just.  Work.

We also stand ready to assist with the Opposition’s plans for a National Education Service. It would be truly bold and innovative if the Labour Party was willing to engage with all those who understand education.

Amongst the most significant experience our Members can offer is that of simultaneously running both an independent school and sponsoring an academy. This time last year, Mike Buchanan stood before you and rejected the notion that large numbers of schools should be coerced into doing so, or that this was more valuable than any other activity. It is a testament to our schools’ good faith and genuine commitment that they have continued, even without political pressure, to get on and do the job.

Notably, the doors to the London Academy of Excellence, Tottenham, opened last month, largely thanks to Highgate School, its lead sponsor. It will offer a first-class Sixth Form to bright local children, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, and is a sister to the highly acclaimed London Academy of Excellence.

Media disinterest in such ground-breaking work is one thing, but I was bemused to read a Sunday Times piece a few weeks ago, rightly celebrating LAE pupils’ achievements but painting them as an example of how state schools are “outstripping” independent schools. No mention was made that our schools help run the LAE in the first place – for no reason other than a genuine desire to see all children reach their potential. A very different – and truer – narrative.

But we go on undeterred; I myself am in talks to open a free school in Leicestershire – but I won’t hold my breath for any plaudits!

For many HMC Members, helping pupils from less well-off families to attend our schools is the agreed strategy for increasing access to a great education.

Bursary programms have been at the heart of MCmanyumany of our schools’ vision for social mobility for decades, woven as they are into their charitable founding purpose. Some choose to focus on smaller numbers of more expensive full-fee payment for the most in need; others for a variety of different levels to ensure a wide social mix.

Again, this is work at scale, changing the lives of thousands of children. The amount spent on means-tested assistance by schools under the ISC umbrella has increased by £100 million in five years to £380 million every year. And we are proud to work with the Springboard Bursary Foundation, which aims with RNCF to place 1,000 disadvantaged children into independent and state boarding schools completely free of charge.

A third of all pupils at independent schools are now on reduced fees.  There are many examples of vigorous fundraising and huge commitment – some schools are even hoping eventually to become needs-blind.  Our detractors conveniently forget that HMC schools are not-for-profit institutions and work exceptionally hard, employing professional fundraisers to raise money to pass on to families who need it.

This is by no means to “prop up” our own schools. Frankly, that is not necessary. Moreover, the case for greater resources for state schools is all the more compelling when it becomes clear that important aspects of their pupils’ education are being provided solely by their neighbouring independent school.

Indeed, whole subject areas are becoming increasingly reliant on our sector. For example, a quarter of A level entries in French, German and Spanish come from independent schools.  Specialist degree courses in areas such as Latin, Greek, Music, and Religious Studies would also struggle without our support.  There is no innate reason for this.  Much of the problem is starved resource in state schools but important, too, has been the steadfastness with which HMC schools have applied rigour and persistence to the task of opening up the horizons of pupils.

As well as boosting existing subjects, HMC schools in particular are known for their research and new thinking. The innovation panel tomorrow will present a tiny snapshot of the truly ground-breaking research-based work currently underway to, as Eton puts it, “improve cognitive performance and attainment, foster a love of learning and enable a healthy, productive approach to personal development.”

We will also be delighted to welcome Professor Barb Oakley to the stage, who will explain how it is possible to retrain the brain to learn subjects we all regard as beyond us.

Long-term, nationally significant improvements to education are also the ambition of HMC’s current campaigns. They have sought to combine detailed analysis with alliance-building, public influencing and research into how young people are really thinking, to produce findings which will benefit all pupils.

Since 2012 HMC has put considerable effort into identifying the significant inadequacies in public exams bequeathed to the new exams regulator, Ofqual, at the turn of the decade.  A legacy that was blighting the life chances of tens of thousands of students across the country.

With NAHT joining this campaign in 2014 and ASCL now also alongside us, much has been achieved.  The entire question of quality of marking has been opened up to public scrutiny, as has the pattern of grades awarded among subjects and between exam boards.  Close working between language teachers in independent and state schools over more than a decade finally exposed shortcomings in the design of Modern Languages question papers at A level.  And the complete inadequacy of the appeal system has started to be tackled.

Led by HMC, this has involved tenacity on the part of a coalition of school representative groups – and the benefits to all exam candidates are now starting to flow.  Confidence was low in the areas I have just outlined but is now starting to improve, although there is much more needed to make appeals fairer and more transparent.  Although the political independence and public profile of HMC schools was needed to prise open this debate, its results bear witness to the strength of the alliance we have built with state school leaders.

However, one outstanding and central concern remains unresolved.  Since 2015, with NAHT, we have set out the case for a public debate on whether individual grading is sufficiently reliable.  While national standards have become more secure, there remains great uncertainty that each candidate passing through the system secures an accurate grade.

True to its word, Ofqual has begun to tackle this, too.  But the size of the problem is unnerving and cannot be condoned by school leaders through silence.  The regulator’s best estimate is that in some GCSE subjects more than a third of candidates do not receive an accurate grade.

Given that exam grades are often the key which allows young people passage to the next stage of their lives, this situation cannot be acceptable.

As an important step towards even greater collaboration,  I am pleased to announce that our colleagues at ASCL will convene a day-long policy summit later this year, in collaboration with HMC. School and college leaders, universities and employers will explore how to ensure every child is awarded an exam grade that is accurate and reliable – as they have every right to expect.

Consideration of our contribution to the quality of the exams leads in a few steps to that of good mental health.  In our recent Member survey it is striking how quickly energetic co-working with organisations such as Young Minds and Digital Awareness UK, has come to be seen as an integral and valued feature of HMC’s activity.

I am probably most proud of progress made by HMC in this particular field.  It took courage and skill to step forward, explain the actions being taken in our schools and offer resources based on greater consultation with pupils. Our conferences on good mental health in schools and on partnering with parents were both open to our state school colleagues. The Tech Control campaign, the next phase of which will be launched on Wednesday, is providing fascinating and timely new information about teenagers’ attitudes to technology and helping teachers to help pupils to use it wisely.

Thanks are due to the energetic Wellbeing Working Group of HMC whose members understood both the need for, and value of, such partnerships.

Increasingly, we are also looking to partner with leaders in higher education to support the safe passage of teenagers through school and university and out into a productive and fulfilling adult life. Steering such a course is not only difficult for young people, but presents hazards to those of us willing to risk speaking boldly on this subject. Later in the Conference you will hear more about this vital work of partnership, reported through the findings of the latest survey of third year undergraduates commissioned by the universities committee we convene in alliance with the Girls Schools Association.

These are all issues of national importance, in which HMC schools have been acknowledged as taking a lead, identifying gaps and pulling together communities of interest.

However, we can only do this with the cooperation and support of other education leaders and it is striking how much unity of purpose has already been discovered by working together. We are grateful to ASCL General Secretary, Geoff Barton, both for coming to Belfast and for his clear-sighted vision of what is possible for children when outdated notions of state versus private are cast aside.

And to NAHT Deputy General Secretary, Nick Brook, who only a fortnight ago, at ISC’s national partnership event, decried those who do not support collaboration: “Because…,” he said, “… the simple truth is that both sectors are in the same business – that of imparting knowledge to young people, developing their skills and preparing them for adult life”.

The same could be said for universities, with whom we have a complex set of relationships based not only on supply of, and the demand for, outstanding candidates, but what we know is a shared desire to develop truly confident young people with a lifelong thirst for learning.

A priority for HMC will be strengthening our affiliations, and continuing to work closely with central government, exam boards and the school inspectorate, who all remain critical to improving educational outcomes. It is by working together – whilst being independent and outspoken when necessary – that we truly break down barriers and make real progress.

So independent schools, and HMC schools, offer tangible value to UK education. Simultaneously, we contribute significantly to the economy at a time when our colleagues in ASCL and NAHT are warning of a schools funding crisis.

A recent Oxford Economics report estimated the taxpayer saves over £3.6 bn a year from parents who choose to pay for their child to be educated. UK independent schools contribute a total of £11.7 billion to the UK economy and provide 275,000 jobs as well as work for associated local businesses which are vital to communities, especially in rural locations.

Any attempts to undermine our sector can only harm the Exchequer and thereby have a detrimental effect on already cash-strapped state schools.

However, we should never forget there is an engine room which powers our public benefit activities; the quality of our own schools. It is truly remarkable that we all work for the educational welfare of others in addition to the huge demands of the ‘day job’.

And this should remind us of something else.  We can only play our part; it is for central government, with its huge resources, to do the rest. Only by being excellent can we offer excellence – and only by acknowledging excellence can others share in it.

We must also refute the suggestion that our schools are in decline. On the contrary, those in HMC are thriving, even in a volatile economic climate. Let’s look at a school career. Independent research shows that our pupils are one to two years ahead of state school pupils of similar ability by GCSE – even when taking background and prior attainment into account. It’s the value added to pupils by our schools by the time they are aged 16 which explains our extraordinary success at A level, completely confounding the claim of the Good Schools Guide that state schools are catching up in terms of results.

Independent schools are almost the only ones to offer courses which are more demanding than A-levels.  This year 83% of independent schools reported results for other exams, such as the Pre U or International Baccalaureate. The average points score for pupils taking the IB Diploma in 2017 was 37: that’s equivalent to 4.5 grade As at A Level.

Research from 2015 showed a larger proportion of independent pupils go on to achieve a 1st or 2:1, at university and independent school graduates earn more than state sector graduates in the same sort of positions, even after taking into account differences in age, gender, university and degree – and crucially, regardless of social background.

As we know, results and higher education is only part of the mix. We place huge emphasis on fitness and health, with pupils spending an average of 4-5 hours a week in sport and exercise. This compares to less than 2 hours a week nationally. Our pupils also spend on average 1-2 hours a week doing performing arts.

Again, we do not keep this advantage to ourselves. Quietly, locally, every day, HMC schools send out sports coaches and open up facilities to state school pupils.

When it comes to character education, research this year among 9,000 pupils in independent schools indicated that they are particularly resilient, are better at dealing with setbacks, and are more open to learning than their peers in other schools.

HMC schools are, therefore, utterly convinced, with reason and good evidence, of the values which endure in school education.  That to be effective and not let pupils down, we must provide the widest possible range of experiences, knowledge and skill; and that an education infiltrated by fads, shallow political gestures and cowed professionals is bound to fail and have to be constructed afresh.

It is this certainty which is underpinning an unparalleled period of international expansion in which we have to offer. We have just crossed a symbolic threshold – there are now more HMC pupils studying abroad in offshoots of British-based schools than international students coming to our schools in Britain – and HMC is recognised as one of the most prominent organisations generating international recognition for the quality of British education.

Again, our critics should think carefully about what this means. Britain, at a time of severe post-Brexit uncertainty, is experiencing growing trade in international education. To which independent schools – in no small part HMC schools – contribute well over £600 million every year.  At the same time, our overseas campuses are providing a pipeline of over 8,000 international students to UK colleges and universities. And this happens because independent schools are free to make long term strategic plans in a way that our colleagues in the state sector can only dream of.

A report this month from RSAcademics confirms the trend. It predicts the global expansion of the British school education brand in ways which will continue to build the UK’s economic strength and soft power.

I can believe this from my own experience. Only three weeks ago I was with Chinese officials at the opening of a University of Leicester Institute at the University of Dalian. I was welcomed there because they saw my school – and HMC schools generally – as providing the sort of world-class education which will allow their students access to the best universities in the English-speaking world, whilst providing a holistic education which brings with it improved wellbeing, cultural liberalism and a sense of being a true global citizen.

Many of you will have been involved in similar conversations. It is endlessly ironic that UK independent education, one of the most valued and enduring global brands, should be so sneered at in its country of origin.

Nevertheless, HMC is proud to have 54 International members who lead some of the world’s outstanding schools beyond the British Isles, many of whom are here today. We will have the chance to hear from some of them on Wednesday, when the international panel meets and when Mark Steed from JESS Dubai informs and slightly terrifies us with his vision of disruptive technologies. HMC international schools offer an extraordinarily rich mix from a focus on multi lingualism to development of the spiritual as well as the academic.

Some of our British members also oversee international campuses which bring significant funds back to this country for fee assistance, again benefitting UK education directly. However, it is not just British pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who gain – our schools have a long history of donating to developing countries.

The energy and will of HMC Heads is truly extraordinary – as those of you who joined me on West Sands in St Andrews will recall. On that occasion alone we financed 1.3m tetanus inoculations for vulnerable expectant mothers, in partnership with Unicef. This serves as just one small example of a wide-ranging programme of international philanthropy which includes the Bulkeley-Evans gap year Scholarship Fund and HMC Projects in Central and Eastern Europe, which has provided education in Britain for more than 1,700 financially disadvantaged scholars from over a dozen former Eastern Bloc countries.

In total, HMC schools give at least £4.5m each year to charitable education projects overseas. Many of you will have your own overseas programmes running, as well as substantial UK charitable giving. We also know that a quarter of pupils in HMC schools are involved in volunteering.  Again: little known facts to those who wonder whether we fulfil our charitable purpose.

I can only hope that illuminating such daily realities can also serve to dispel some of the myths which cause us so much frustration. I will say it again: we are independent, not privately-owned schools who are directly answerable to governors and the Charity Commission for our charitable work.  40% of our parents didn’t attend independent schools. The average fee in independent schools in this country is £16,686.  And state school students do not routinely do better as undergraduates – only 1% with like-for-like grades do so. By the time I reach the end of my second year as HMC Chair, I will have these facts tattooed on my forehead.

So, it is clear that independent schools are a valuable and necessary asset to the UK at home and abroad. Nevertheless, we are at a critical juncture. Our Scottish schools are facing the possibility of losing their business rates relief; an act of unwarranted implications – not least given all our Scottish schools have done to meet a charity test – which would only serve to harm the state education sector and the economy.

A similar threat waits in the wings in England and Wales. When the Labour Party suggested putting VAT on school fees South of the Border in their election manifesto, we were obliged to explain such a policy would cost the taxpayer billions, as many pupils being educated independently would then have to be paid for by the state.  This would require building expensive new schools or accommodating the new pupils in larger classes – meaning Labour will have broken its 2017 conference pledge to bring class sizes down.

With greater costs and fewer parents able to afford higher fees, our schools would have no option but to re-balance the books – including withdrawing public service education which cost them money to provide. The hardest hit would be the less well- off, whose fees are paid by the school. We would see loss of essential community resources. Loss of employment, loss of economic opportunities, loss of overseas trade and loss of international influence. And an immediate net loss to the Treasury at a time when all politicians are uneasy at the level of funding available to state schools.

There seems little logic to support the argument. The phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face” comes to mind.

But what is clear is that there is now a choice. Down one road lies cooperation, economic and educational stability – and long-term benefit to state schools. Down the other lies a set of hidden consequences and government own-goals.

So – enough. Parents need to know that politicians and school leaders will work together to help their children reach their potential.

As Education Secretary for England Justine Greening has pointed out, Brexit means that the UK is in the process of being politically and economically re-wired and societal change will inevitably follow. An education which prepares young people with both rigour and realism is therefore a key part of re-setting the dial.

The time for state versus independent education is gone, to be replaced perhaps by state education with renewed independence of spirit and independent education with a renewed sense of responsibility to society.

So, let us trust that common sense will prevail. Let us not be hesitant in helping to recapture the educational debate in the UK, when, self-evidently, we have in HMC school, a globally powerful and influential model of education that is resonating right around a changing world.

Thank you.

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