Facing changes, changing faces

Independent Education Today, 24/11/14, asked leading figures from the sector to reflect on the year’s developments and look forward to what lies ahead. HMC Chairman, Richard Harman, Headmaster of Uppingham School and HMC members John Claughton, Chief Master, King Edward's School, Birmingham, Sue Freestone, Principal, King's Ely School and Dr John Newton, Headmaster, Taunton School are quoted.

What have been the main trends in the independent sector you have observed over the last year?

Richard Harman: The sector is in a strong position. In terms of attainment, the pupils coming out of independent schools continue to thrive and large numbers win places at top universities. Boarding numbers have gone up slightly. Beyond these shores, more schools are opening overseas branches. In the UK demand remains strong overall, though with wide regional variation; where the local economy is doing well, so are independent schools. Within the HMC, an exciting new development is the launch of our teacher training project, HMCTT. This builds on the outstanding work the association has done in recent years on professional development for our staff.

John Claughton: There are a number of things going on and it differs from school to school as to what matters: HMC is a very broad church and the independent sector is even broader than that. The big concern must be A level reform because of the pace of change, the lack of clarity about what the impact will be, what the universities will want etc. It really doesn’t help that the changes, although rapid, will be spread over three years so that the students will have a real muddle. And if Curriculum 2000 is anything to go by, there will be years of strife in marking and grading etc. Of course, this isn’t my problem because we do IB and only IB, a visionary position in the light of A level confusion. North of Oxford there are continuing concerns about the impact of the economy, schools’ capacity to get the right number and right quality of pupils. I think there is continued development in the ways in which independent schools are relating to the wider world, through provision of assisted places, outreach activities of many kinds, funding/sponsoring/supporting state schools. The government wants us all to do something, but I think they are accepting a number of different ways of doing so. There is no doubt that the inspection system is becoming more rigorous with regard to safeguarding and all such issues.

John Newton: The inspection process is getting worse: it focuses too much on compliance and not about improving education. The issue of public benefit has not gone away and may well feature after the next election. The economy is picking up, but life remains very tough for independent schools, particularly smaller schools and they are doing very well to keep going. There’s greater decisiveness over the new A level curriculum than we see in the state sector which is refreshing.

Sue Freestone: Growing confidence on the part of parents in the ability of independent schools to deliver high-quality, well-rounded education, and increasing self-assurance within the independent schools’ sector. These two factors go hand in hand.

What’s the most positive development?

RH: The excellent performance of our pupils, not only in terms of exam results but also with regard to their all-round skills, character development and employability. HMC has also maintained targeted pressure on Ofqual, the exams regulator, with some notable successes, such as the recent review of grading in MFL subjects at A level.

JC: I am not sure that there is any single development in the sector that really matters. From this school’s point of view, the most positive development is the continued increase in accessibility through fundraising for assisted places. We have raised £7m for this purpose already and we will get to £10m by 2017. That is changing this school and is pointing the way forward in the sector. I hope that the Sutton Trust’s drive in this area and its harassment of the government to find some positive response to what we are doing makes some progress.

JN: The continued emphasis on commenting about the quality that independent school education brings. Academic results keep on improving.

SF: At King’s Ely, we are experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of registrations and applications received, which implies a recovering economy and a willingness on the part of parents to engage with the commitment to fund their children’s education.

What’s the most worrying development?

RH: A) further evidence has emerged since the summer of the need for significant repair work to general confidence in our exams system and its regulation; b) lazy stereotyping by, for example, Alan Milburn’s commission (repeated by the media) has the potential to create a more hostile environment for us. What is needed, by contrast, is genuine cross-sector dialogue about how to build an excellent system for all pupils that promotes social cohesion, embracing the strengths of both state and private provision; c) poorly timed and ill-conceived ‘consultations’ on independent schools’ inspection and the funding of CCFs have caused concern and roused reaction. I wonder if there will be a summer holiday soon that does not get interrupted by the need to work on a sensible response to such numbskullery.

JC: I expect it is A level reform, but what is more worrying is that independent schools are responding by staying put with A levels. The only alternative seems to be the previously unheard of international A levels. Why don’t they show some courage and do something different – like IB?

JN: The problems of safeguarding in boarding schools, especially prep schools, which is threatening prep school boarding recruitment. The retirement or departure of significant heads in the independent sector.

SF: The ever-increasing obsession with compliance, which, although an essential aspect of what we do, has the potential to overwhelm the core objective of offering a high-quality educational experience and meaningful personal development for our pupils.

Has your job got easier or harder?

RH: It never gets easier.

JC: About the same.

JN: It has got harder because of the even greater lunacies from the UK Visa and Immigration organisation limiting our refusal rate to 10 per cent and not 20 per cent. It has got easier because it is going to be more exciting and stimulating to have a sixth form that is not totally and utterly dominated by examinations from the start.

SF: It has changed, but it is not harder. However, time consumed dealing with the growing burden of compliance issues is time which is no longer available for us to cherish the benefits and joys of working with our pupils and seeing them achieve and develop into fine young adults.

Did you welcome or regret the departure of Michael Gove (and the arrival of Nicky Morgan)?

RH: Michael Gove was a radical reformer who risked becoming a zealot towards the end of his time as secretary of state; he developed a tendency to upset people in the profession. Nicky Morgan is very able and seems to be a good listener. She is unlikely to make as many enemies as her predecessor, especially given the proximity of a general election. How long she will be in post remains to be seen.

JC: Thankfully, I don’t have to care. Gove clearly tried to do a lot of things, but I think that his means have never matched his ends.

JN: I regret the departure of Michael Gove. I have only heard the fairly predictable positive noises from Nicky Morgan and no real vision. Michael Gove had vision and did take us to a new place in education, especially with his legacy of academies and free schools.

SF: I regretted the fact Michael Gove did not live up to his early promise. Nicky Morgan’s arrival has had little impact thus far so the jury’s still out on that one.

How have political or economic pressures affected the sector?

RH: Economically in Britain the picture is varied; London and the south east seem to be booming, while life is much tougher in the north and the south west. For a while the prospect of an independent Scotland led to great uncertainty as to the future of the sector there. The emergence of an international, mobile, wealthy middle class in growing economies overseas has supported demand for British boarding and for schools opening abroad. Politically in the UK, whilst we get a good hearing in private, very few top current politicians are keen to be seen talking to us; those with more experience and wisdom (and perhaps without such a short-term PR imperative) are much more willing to consider creative dialogue in public.

JC: The long recession has had an impact on schools north of Oxford/Cambridge. Just look at the league tables to see the dominance of London and the south east and compare that with the way the world was 30 years ago. There just aren’t that many people in the midlands/north who can afford the fees, even though the fees are much lower.

JN: Things have gone quiet before the next election. The politicians have not yet formulated an exciting set of proposals for their manifestos on education, but we look forward to those. Those who have been well prepared for the downturn are still able to innovate, draw in parents and invest. Those who have not will continue to struggle because it is the five years after the recession ends that are the hardest for independent schools.

SF: The pain of the economic issues of past years is still being felt and parents who, in the past, would have kept their children at an independent school for sixth form, choose to give themselves a break before launching into the expense of funding their offspring through university.

What are your views on the increasing proportion of overseas students entering the independent sector?

RH: This year I believe the numbers of overseas boarders dipped very slightly. Overall, international pupils add great value to their schools and the UK economy as a whole. On the other hand, some schools will need to grapple with questions of identity (what kind of a school are we?) if the balance between UK and international pupils changes very rapidly. Then again, as an example, London is a highly international city; the old definitions of ‘nationality’ are perhaps changing.

JC: More international students reflect the regard of the world for our schools, but also the economic need of our schools to fill their beds. However, things won’t go on like this forever. The growth of overseas schools set up by UK schools will absorb some of this demand.

JN: I am discovering that other parts of the world are extremely keen on having the same exposure to overseas students as we do. We should feel blessed that so many want to come to our country to study and we should make the most of their experiences and culture to educate our own students too.

SF: As educators we extol the virtues of the global village and endeavour to inculcate in our students a sense of social responsibility for people around the world. One of the highest duties of the head of any boarding school is to enable and nurture mutual understanding and respect between young people of different races, different faiths, different colours, so that, by living together, they understand that the differences that divide hold far less power than the unifying force of shared fears and aspirations. The more students from different nations and cultures live and work together, the more the evils born of fear engendered by ignorance and prejudice are broken down. All that said, it is essential that we maintain our culture as quintessentially British because that is what those who choose to study in this country come here to understand.

What do you expect to be the key trends in the independent sector in 2015 and beyond?

RH: Much will depend on economics, but I expect the sector to remain strong in terms of numbers and all-round pupil attainment. Further thought will need to be given to widening access to our schools and to issues of social cohesion. The mantra should be to offer excellence for all rather than to handicap those who have experienced it; fundraising will increasingly move away from big new buildings towards bursaries. There needs to be dialogue with politicians and opinion-formers across the spectrum as to how to work together for the good of all. It is time to stop talking up divisions and start looking at solutions together.

JC: I am not sure that I am bothered about the sector. Here, the key issue is accessibility and the school doing its civic and moral and historic purpose as the servant of the community of Birmingham. That’s what matters in the most socially and ethnically diverse independent school in this country.

JN: A rediscovery of exciting teaching, especially at sixth-form level. A continuation of the stranglehold of independent schools with the best results. The rather inane negative attitude towards the independent sector will continue, unfortunately, rather than the government seeking to make it easier for parents to come to independent schools.

SF: I anticipate the emergence of three key trends. The first is an exciting opportunity: meeting the challenges of exam reform and curriculum change in a way that is not hamstrung by government diktat. The second trend is likely to be a growth in the strength of the independent schools sector and in parental confidence. And finally the outcome of the next general election will bring challenges, as yet unpredictable.

How do you think boarding provision will fare in 2015 and beyond?

RH: Boarding has always been flexible and resilient. It will continue to adapt well to challenges, sometimes against the odds; there is no doubt, though, that social change has led to a diminished acceptance of boarding at a young age. I expect senior boarding (weekly, flexi- or full) to grow if the economy flourishes.

JN: Outside of the south east it will struggle unless we begin to watch affordability. We will see more flexi boarding in different parts of the country and that can only be a good thing. If the boarding schools themselves are able to articulate their vision well, boarding may well begin to pick up again.

Do you think a change in government next year would significantly affect the sector?

RH: Not in the short term, but I imagine that in the medium to longer term there will be significant challenges for the sector whoever wins the election; hence the need to establish broad-based dialogue now.

JC: No political party can really be seen as being friendly to the independent sector so they won’t fund places in our schools and I don’t really see a return to the Charity Commission’s assault. It’s a shame that this ideological position will not enable there to be a return to a world where our schools were part of the state system through the direct grant scheme or government-assisted places.

JN: It never does. A Labour government will produce a lot of silly ideas which will drive a lot of people to the independent sector. The Conservative Party will continue its trend with free schools and academies and continue to attempt to make the best of education with the limited budget that they have. Until all schools have the capacity to charge fees, we will not see much greater investment or innovation in the state sector to the extent that we want to see it.

SF: I do not believe it will bring about wholesale reversal of the Gove reforms and I hope, passionately, that another generation of children will not become the political footballs of changing leadership. I fear the old chestnut of public benefit may sprout anew.

What’s your New Year’s resolution likely to be?

RH: To remain in the flow and not in the grip of life (and work).

JC: Sort myself out. After 14 years of headship, it’s about time.

JN: To enjoy a completely new world of education in Australia. To get to know and take forward my new school in Adelaide.

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