End of year report

IE Today, 04.07.16, as the academic year concludes, five key figures from the independent sector reflect on 2015-16 and the challenges ahead. HMC Chair Chris King Headmaster of leading independent Leicester Grammar School and HMC Head Rhiannon Wilkinson Headmistress of leading independent Wycombe Abbey School feature.

What were your highlights for this academic year?

Rhiannon Wilkinson: The construction of our two new boarding houses, in our 120th anniversary year, is the biggest redevelopment programme of my career. Parents and friends of the School have contributed nearly £5 million to the project, confirming their faith in what we are doing. I’m also delighted at the growing numbers of Wycombe girls gaining places at the USA’s leading universities.

Chris King: At a time of constant changes to curriculum and assessment, HMC’s work to improve the setting, marking and grading of public examinations has had demonstrable impact – but we remain very concerned about proposed Ofqual reforms to mark reviews, appeals and the Code of Practice. Elsewhere, we have entered the national debate about teenagers’ wellbeing and mental health, and have enjoyed sharing ideas with colleagues in the state sector.

And the challenges?

CK: A major challenge has been to break down independent school stereotypes and dismantle flawed research. For example, it is not true that pupils from state schools do better in their first degree. Generally, independently educated pupils enter university with better qualifications and do better than state school pupils. Only around 2% of state school pupils who enter with the same qualifications perform better. We have also discovered that an independent school education adds an extra two years to a child's educational experience and achievement by age 16. But most journalists and politicians don’t want to hear this.

What is your view on the teacher recruitment 'crisis'?

RW: While we are fortunate to be largely unaffected, I am very aware that recruitment in education is an increasing challenge. Although teaching is a very rewarding career, rising housing prices in particular make it unattractive to many young people, especially for university graduates starting their careers heavily in debt.

The subtext of many pronouncements from the Department for Education does little to make teaching attractive. The idea that schools and teachers hold the answer to most of the country’s social and economic challenges is somewhat far-fetched.

CK: Recruiting good teachers is an increasing challenge for all schools. The independent sector is not immune – especially in physics, maths and languages – but our schools are well placed. We can help trainees to specialise, access a wide range of school activities, and achieve higher salaries. HMC’s own Teacher Training (HMCTT) pilot scheme provides a new pathway into the profession.

Were there any aspects of the ISC census findings that surprised you?

RW: Demand for independent education is holding firm. However, there is no room for complacency. Increasing costs and competition over recruitment are very real pressures – especially on smaller schools. There is a growing homogenisation towards co-education and the economies of scale which size bring. Somehow, the independent school world needs to ensure that a real variety of provision is maintained.

CK: The ISC census held few surprises. It shows numbers holding up well generally – but the truth is that the best and strongest are getting better and stronger.

What did you think of the DfE's white paper?

CK: I was encouraged to see recognition of the importance of educational standards. We have already seen a partial U-turn on ‘academisation’ and we can only wonder what else will fail to come to fruition. Funding for many maintained schools is falling sharply and delivery of some of the white paper’s ideals may simply wither on the vine for lack of money.

What developments would you like to see in the education sector over the coming year?

RW: It would be beneficial for all to have clarity on the external examination system. The way in which A Level reform has been introduced so far, in some subjects but not others, beggars belief. The Department for Education should accept that continuity and stability have merit. Change, where necessary, needs to be coherent and properly planned.

My most hoped-for development won’t, sadly, happen. We need to move away from a reliance on examination grades as our basis for assessing young people. Independent schools rightly make much of the broad education they offer: however, we all know that what ‘counts’ are a young person’s final grades. This narrow focus undermines the true purpose of education.

CK: The independent sector should continue to demonstrate that we are part of the solution to improving education for all pupils. Partnerships of all kinds will continue to be important, as will pressing the case for reliable examination results, participation in sport and improved pastoral care. HMC membership is growing, and we will support this increasing membership through high-quality Continuing Professional Development and by harnessing the knowledge and expertise of our Heads.

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