Independent Education Today, 30.06.15, as the school year closes, key figures in the independent sector reflect on 2014-15 and consider future prospects. HMC Chairman, Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham School and John Claughton, Chief Master of King Edward's School, Birmingham feature.
What have been the most positive developments within the independent education sector during this academic year?
John Claughton: I don’t see the independent sector doing anything that is all that fascinating at the moment. The good news for schools in the Midlands and the north is that the economy has grown in confidence and that means there are more people who can send their children to independent schools.
Richard Harman: The increased pupil numbers from the ISC census are especially welcome, as green shoots emerge and our schools’ consistent performance in all aspects of education is clear. Partnerships with state schools or their communities are up again, with nearly all HMC schools taking part. This shows there is quiet, unsung work happening every day to benefit all pupils. Fee assistance has also increased and I’m sure this trend will continue. HMC has started an important initiative to ensure young people receive more joined-up learning and support as they transition from school to university. Meanwhile, our first sports survey showed our schools providing an average of five to six hours of high-quality sport a week, which helps balanced and healthy lifestyles. HMCTT is an excellent new initiative to address the vital issue of teacher supply and recruitment into the sector.
What have been the major causes for concern?
JC: The main cause for concern is the gap between north and south. Whereas the ‘golden south’ worries about having too many oligarchs on the books, schools beyond Oxford have to fight very hard to main quantity and quality of pupils. Since we do IB , this doesn’t worry me, but the confusion about A levels must be a problem. I remain amazed that schools continue to put up with it.
RH: Everyone is concerned that so many young people in all schools are finding life in modern Britain such a struggle. At the same time, an HMC survey has shown our pastoral care has increased hugely in the past five years so we are responding positively and proactively to our pupils’ needs. There remains, of course, more to do. Media stereotyping still defines us by privilege rather than excellence, with our many successes often spun as negatives. We are presented as a key cause of the UK’s social ills, rather than part of the solution. Our exam system remains a worry. Re-mark rates are still unacceptably high and the ‘enquiries about results’ process is still inadequate and lacks fairness and transparency. Ofqual needs to take more action more urgently and we are watching closely.
What were your personal highlights of the year?
JC: Last summer’s summer concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall where our retiring head of drama and head of the orchestra danced on stage with an old boy who is a professional ballroom dancer.
RH: I enjoyed launching my chairmanship at HMC’s annual conference in Wales. Also co-chairing our London Spring Briefing with Sir Bob Burgess to mark the start of the first ‘Transitions 16-21’ partnership with university leaders. As headmaster of Uppingham I’m excited to be hosting the first HMC committee meeting at my school since the inaugural one was chaired here by my great predecessor Edward Thring in 1869. HMC is coming home. Witnessing the energy, talent and commitment of heads and pupils as I have travelled all around the UK to so many great schools.
JC: Having a stroke.
Did you welcome the outcome of the general election?
JC: Yes, for economic reasons.
RH: HMC is non-party political and has worked well with all parties. However, stability is usually better than uncertainty and we now need the pace of change to slow down. The Conservatives’ promises of raising standards and more autonomy for heads was obviously more attractive to the electorate than tinkering with independent school charitable status and worrying about a relatively small number of unqualified teachers.
Did you welcome the re-appointment of Nicky Morgan?
JC: I don’t care, but why doesn’t some secretary for education pay real attention to creating a different way of constructing the nation’s curriculum?
RH: She is very able and represents much needed consistency. She has demonstrated she understands the value of letting teachers teach, as well as the need to moderate the pace of change and allow reforms to bed in.
What one academic reform could the new government bring in which would most benefit the sector?
JC: It won’t happen, but a move towards state-funding for pupils in independent schools. The creation of a non-political body to oversee the curriculum, in accordance with the Royal Society’s recommendations.
RH: A sensible inspection regime that balances necessary regulatory compliance (consistently applied, not gold plated) with a real focus on school improvement, how pupils learn and what makes for excellent teaching, but that’s a lot to ask, I know.
Were there any aspects of the ISC annual census findings which surprised you?
JC: It surprised me that we celebrated growing numbers in the sector when we all know that growth is not the fate of all independent schools.
RH: No, because we had predicted that pupil numbers would grow as the economy recovers. I’m particularly pleased to see recovery in the west and north. Fee increases are low considering rising cost pressures and this is, of course, something to watch in the future.
Has your own job got easier or harder?
JC: I don’t know.
RH: This year, it’s fair to say harder, given the HMC chairmanship on top of the ‘day job’, although it has been a hugely enjoyable challenge and very rewarding. As far as the usual issues arising from running a 24/7 boarding school, parental requirements and the curse of the digital/online world is concerned – no. Those things have remained demanding … but enjoyable. Since I moved 30 years ago from publishing into teaching, I have never had one day at work when I have been bored!
Is digital technology being used to its full potential in classrooms?
JC: No, but we are on the case. I remain attached to the notion that teaching depends above all on human beings and the relation between them.
RH: There’s no simple answer to that. Pockets of great practice exist in HMC schools, such as shared resources on iTunes, the use of multimedia online resources for classroom enrichment and discussion, flipped learning and so forth. But it’s as much about how pupils are taught to think as about whiz-bang technology in classrooms or bringing devices into school per se. There needs to be a blend and I doubt if inspirational teachers will ever be replaced by machines; the best ones integrate technology into their work.
Should the state and private sectors work more closely together?
JC: Of course they should and there are lots of ways to do it. We work with 170 different junior schools with 10,000 junior school kids in a year in perhaps 30 different activities.
RH: Undoubtedly this will benefit both parties. The fact that nearly all HMC schools are in different partnerships already tells us there is huge appetite and that learning that must be captured and used to inform the next phase. We need now to build on that huge variety of work, which of course has to be relevant and wanted by all concerned. I believe this is part of our moral purpose, to share best practice, expertise and innovation for the benefit of all.
What are the key challenges that lie ahead in the sector over the next academic year?
JC: Affordability and accessibility are crucial to us. The key challenge for the independent sector is to create and convey a moral purpose.
RH: Affordability: keeping fee rises low at a time of rising costs whilst also building bursary funds to widen access. Recruitment: there is a national crisis of teacher supply, especially in some core subjects, and we must continue to address this problem, for example through HMCTT. Managing curriculum change: as new GCSEs start being taught and linear A levels come in, we will need to help pupils and parents navigate the rapids and ensure our teachers are prepared. Perceptions: we will need to keep promoting the real contribution our sector makes to the overall education system. Sadly, some negative stories from the past, such as distressing historic abuse cases, are likely to continue to emerge and the misery suffered by past victims must and will be acknowledged. However, the present-day reality of our schools is so positive that there is plenty to celebrate.
Complete the following sentence: I am proud to work within the independent education sector because …
JC: I am not sure that I am proud to work in the independent sector. I am proud to work at King Edward’s because 25% of our boys are on assisted places and that means we can change lives, not reinforce privilege.
RH: It is full of talented, imaginative, creative and energetic people and its schools are among the best in the world.
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