HMC Conference: Chair Fiona Boulton’s speech

30 September 2019
Posted by HMC Press Office

I am delighted that the 2019 HMC Conference is being held here in London, in the Intercontinental Hotel, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of HMC. Our Annual Service is being held in the Naval College Chapel and our Annual dinner is in the Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The venues are a wonderful mixture of modern and old as we celebrate our past, our present and our future.

The programme is busy and I hope there is something here for everyone. I thought that you might drop in, drop out, but actually when I look at the quality of the people presenting, I hope that you will keep getting drawn in.

In this speech, I want to look at the history and relevance of HMC, on the work that we are currently doing in society, and I want to challenge the idea that some have of our sector that we are all about privilege.

I am incredibly proud to be Chair of HMC. I am particularly proud to be Chair of HMC in its 150th year. The history of this illustrious organisation is important for all of us. From its beginnings in 1869, when 13 Headmasters met at Uppingham School, to today when 296 of us are meeting here in London, HMC has gone from strength to strength. HMC 150 is a time to stand tall and proud of all that HMC has achieved and to be excited about its future. HMC is recognised as leading educational best practice globally; our Conference is a time for friendship, collaboration, challenge and inspiration.

I do not have time to list all the achievements of HMC schools over 150 years but let me mention a few.  We are academically the highest achieving schools in Britain, which is by no means all because of selection. This means that we have been producing some of the most able students at our universities, and why recently we have educated, for example, a third of all doctors. We have taught an even higher proportion of the best students of modern languages and classics, helping those subjects survive and supplying many teachers for the state sector.

Alongside great teaching has come our support for new and alternative qualifications, such as Nuffield Science which revolutionised the approach towards lab work in all schools in the UK, the Pre U which was a model for the recent A-level reforms, the Extended Project Qualification and the International Baccalaureate.  These are important qualifications, available to all schools but pioneered by us.

Whilst the state sector increased its focus on academic results after the 1980s, our schools continued to emphasise the importance of extra-curricular life.  That is why such a high proportion of the current English cricket team and our rugby teams out in Japan come from our schools and why so many medallists at the Rio Olympics were formed in our schools. This is something to be proud of.

We are the ones who have provided the greatest support for Cadet Forces and, in the early years, the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme  – two incredible pursuits which, with no little thanks to us, are now flourishing in state schools and we would like to see develop further.

But we have also shown the ability to adapt, moving over recent years towards co-education, day schools, more pupils on reduced or no fees, taking pupils from across the world and providing a pipeline for them to our universities, opening campuses abroad to help fund bursaries for children in the UK. We have become the sort of neighbours who people want to stick around, helping strengthen state schools and communities across the nation.

And we are recognised as helping lead the way on pastoral care – HMC raised concerns about young people’s mental health five years ago and has shown what can be done about it.

So we stand proud of our contribution to education in this country.

Standing here today on the shoulders of those who created that remarkable 150-year history, it is sad indeed that, again, we face attack from those who wish to destroy our schools rather than help them build better futures for more children. The recent conference made it clear that Labour wishes to confiscate property and throw thousands of teachers and support workers into an uncertain future.

And do not be fooled into thinking that imposing crippling taxes is anything other than abolition by the back door. It would ensure that many independent schools would not survive.

The decision taken by Labour conference to abolish our schools was based on ignorance and the desire to damage, whilst independent schools have for years been quietly educating,  increasing  free and discounted places, working in state schools and community projects. We have repeatedly offered up to 10,000 places each year, free to lower income families, providing the government just pays what it would cost in a state school. We are open to discussing this or other open-access approaches that might work. This would open up our schools even more, provide new life chances, and take further pressure off state schools.

This is an example of how, as educators, we seek solutions, based on knowledge, experience and understanding. In this spirit, HMC has commissioned research from one of the country’s leading polling companies, ComRes, to get a sense of what people really want from education.

Far from wanting our schools taken over, voters want the government to help more children to get access to them. There is strong support for our idea of the government helping to pay for children from low-income backgrounds to attend independent schools with nearly 50% actively in favour and just 27% against. Interestingly, there is little difference in views between those who vote for different parties. This idea needs open, sensible debate.

And do they support the notion that the state should have a monopoly over education? No, they do not; 64% of respondents said they either did not trust central government or local councils to run schools effectively, or weren’t sure. Only 35% said they trusted them to do so.

Finally, voters are resoundingly in favour of parents having the right to choose how their child is educated. Over two-thirds agree that parents should be able to pay for their children’s education if they can afford to. Only 18% disagree.

This tells us that the policy of destroying great independent schools is a vote loser. The political activists who want to tax good schools to death, without a notion of how to nurture achievement elsewhere, do not understand the common sense of the British people.

Parents are ambitious for their children and people want to see our schools opening up, not closing down. Labour may have forgotten that their voters are aspirational too.

Educators, not politicians, should be in charge of schools, is the message from voters – and so say all of us. In our 150th year, we still have much to learn and we need to keep listening and learning. But it seems that independence and choice are concepts which never go out of fashion.

I am Head of Guildford High School, which has been in United Learning since1888. United Learning has developed into a National Multi Academy Trust consisting of 13 Independent Schools and 70 Academies. We opened our first Academy in Mosside, Manchester in 2003. I have been working alongside the Heads of our Academies since then. There has never been any sense of ‘sponsorship’ of Academies; there is just friendship, support and mutual respect. I have learnt as much, if not more than I have been able to offer any school that I have been into, from Sheffield Springs to Paddington Academy. On a daily basis, we share best practice across our group, with no sense of hierarchy. Academy teachers and pupils come into GHS and my teachers and pupils go into Academies. Guildford High School is a Teaching School, yes; I am a National Leader of Education, yes, but the deep-rooted desire to improve the educational experience of as many children in our care as possible runs deeply through our organisation and it is a personal commitment of mine. In United Learning, there are no state vs. independent school barriers; we are just a group of teachers and head teachers working hard, working together to get the best out of everyone.

There is a great deal of talk about life-changing bursaries, and we would all like to offer as many as possible. I am, however, aware that not every Independent school will be able to spend as much money as they would like to on bursaries. Budgets are running tighter and tighter, particularly in some parts of the country. There are different ways of helping and of working in partnership with the state sector, as evidenced by the Schools Together website. I would suggest that you find out about your local Teaching School Alliance and ask to join it. The sharing of ideas and intellectual property is powerful and any school working in collaboration is stronger than a school working in isolation.

All of these positive experiences have led me to reflect on accusations of elitism and unfair privilege and what they really mean.

I recognise that I am lucky: I have a really privileged background; I come from a close-knit, happy family; I spent summer holidays on the Welsh coast in Aberaeron, paddling around in rock pools and eating honey ice cream; I went to three different state primary schools and a state secondary comprehensive. I had the usual mix of teachers for the 70s. Some who terrified me, some who failed to teach any of us a single thing on the exam specification, but I also had some teachers who were absolutely inspirational: Mr McGregor and Mr Jose, wherever you are now, thank you.  My English teacher told us that Shakespeare was dead and that the sooner the examiners realised that the better. So, we studied no Shakespeare and were thrown into the Science Fiction Omnibus. Our way of rebelling was to play truant on an afternoon and head into London to watch a matinee performance of a Shakespeare play. Three or four of us in my year group at school got into Uni, mostly on contextualised offers.

Having money and being in an independent school does not necessarily mean a carefree childhood. As Head of an independent school I have had to deal with domestic abuse, neglect, murder, mental health issues - and the queue for CAMHS is the same queue that all Headteachers in this country are battling with. Chronic, heartbreaking illnesses and their devastating effects hit all schools, and a serious case review is a serious case review whoever you are.

Having a rock solid, supportive family, however that is made up, is a privilege. Being enveloped in love and feeling secure is a privilege. Having firm and supportive friendships is a privilege; having inspirational teachers, who make their subjects come alive, who look out for you and always go that extra mile is a privilege.

And to assume that only independent schools are delivering on privilege is an insult to our state sector colleagues.

And we all want every child to be privileged; we have a deep-seated longing for every child in this country to feel loved, to feel secure, to be supported, to be inspired and to be healthy.

Privilege is not a binary concept. It is more subtle than that. For example, variation in pupils’ levels of achievement is seen at a very young age.  It is really important that some children start Primary School unable to speak clearly and still in nappies, due to what might be perceived as poor parenting. The gulf is already too wide aged 4 without schooling having anything to do with it. Perhaps this should be the focus of the debate about privilege: looking for practical solutions to help and support at this crucial age in a child’s development.

Or perhaps the focus of the debate in this country should be on how schools should be battling to prevent the bottom third being left behind by tougher new GCSEs. The question we should all be asking is how do you engage white working-class boys, surrounded by county lines issues, who come from third generation unemployed families, who have a 67% attendance rate in Year11? You finally get them into lessons, and you sit them down to study … challenging 19th Century Prose texts. The analysis required in the GCSE paper means that is like being asked to run a hurdles race when you have just learnt to walk.

The argument about privilege is certainly more subtle than just independent vs. state.

But of course, subtlety doesn’t make for a good blame culture, government targets or media headlines. It is much neater to report Oxbridge figures through the simple state / independent divide.

The reality is that 30% of the most deprived students at Oxford came from our schools.

We live in a world where we always hear about the negatives. We live in a world where there is a blame culture; we live in a world where it always has to be someone’s fault.

Independent schools get blamed for getting excellent examination results; state schools get blamed for poor behaviour, exclusions instead of inclusivity; universities get blamed for not taking enough state school pupils: I could go on.

When I am trying to improve performance in sport or music or drama or in exam results, I look at the limiting factors. I am always asking the question: that was great - how do we do better? And what I have learnt is that if you are continuously looking for marginal gains you get better.

As a school in a family of state and independent schools in United Learning we have had to familiarise ourselves with Levels of Progress and Progress 8 data. At GHS, my Junior School sits SATS exams as do the pupils entering the Senior School from state primaries. Data generated by United Learning demonstrated that at GHS between Year 6 and Year 11 more than 90% of pupils make 5 levels of progress. I was told this was exceptional and I wondered why. I then discovered that the national expectations are for around 3 levels of progress.

Getting 7/8/9s delivers GCSE grades that open the doors to universities. But with the Government benchmark being for around 3 levels of progress between KS2 and KS4, this does not necessarily deliver on the grades required to open the doors to all universities. I remain confused about why if it is possible for pupils to make 5 levels of progress, the government benchmark is only for around 3 levels of progress?

Then the universities get blamed for not taking pupils based on the reality of the grades that they have in front of them. And in the cycle of blame, is it our fault for delivering on pupil potential? Is it the state schools’ fault for not always delivering on potential? Is it the fault of the universities for not offering places based on the raw grades on the UCAS form not matching their entry criteria or is it the fault of the Trade Unions for their working time directives which mean that pupils in our sector can get hours of extra help, marking and support in the run up to exams which not all pupils in the state sector get because of the inflexibility of the Unions’ approach?

So let me tell you a couple of stories which really made me think about social mobility and about the impact our expectations have on pupils.

I went into one School and started to peruse their data. There was a pupil who had scored a level 4 in his KS2 SATS test; he was in Year 10 but only making 2 levels of progress. He was described as a ‘classic underachiever’ by his Head of Year. I asked to see his MIDYIS data. It was in excess of 110 - which we know means he could be targeting a Russell Group University. I asked to see him to tell him how innately bright he was and how high he should be aiming – he had absolutely no idea of the grades he should be aiming at or what he was capable of.  It was a joyful moment.

Secondly, we ran MIDYIS testing across the Year 7 cohort for GHS and an Academy. The brightest pupil across the entire cohort was in the Academy. They had only achieved a Level 4 in their SATS and expectations had been set according to this. But this pupil was capable of aiming for an Oxbridge place. Goals were reset and that pupil is now flying high.

What do these two stories tell you? Fundamentally, it tells you that when national level policies and data set the benchmark, the benchmark is lower. This is why we matter as a sector because we don’t have any limits to our aspirations. We don’t really have any understanding of a minimum target. We therefore have a vital role to play in setting aspirational benchmarks, which countries around the globe aspire to, and in improving social mobility.

But again, excellence like privilege is absolutely not a binary concept. I have seen so much excellence in state schools. For example, Heads in the Academies I visit focus so much on Teaching and Learning, their whole SMTs are on daily learning walks and there is such a crystal-clear vision of how they want their staff to teach.

Each state school has their Progress 8 score plotted on a normal distribution or

bell curve. Excellent state schools, at the top of the curve, are surrounded by circles of affluence, as though someone has dropped a pebble into still water. And fairness and gaming the system all come into play.

At GHS, I have families, living in small flats that they own or rent. They might not be able to stretch to a £3/4 million house in our area for a good state school place, but they find the means to stretch to the £17,000 a year for fees at GHS by sacrificing on other ways they spend – whether it’s not taking holidays, never having a new car, or not spending money on themselves. It’s a choice.

Ultimately, we currently live in a country that respects people’s freedom to make choices about their priorities and how they choose to spend their money.

I have used very simple strategies to improve academic performance. I, like all of you, have a rich and varied curricular and co-curricular programme, firmly believing that when predisposition collides with opportunity then something really special can happen. In HMC schools, aspiration is high, teaching is excellent and the sense of community and the sense of belonging, belonging to something really special, gives confidence and strength. We have environments where it is cool to be clever and the norm to be different. Countries around the world recognise the excellence of our schools, they want to share our intellectual property by sending pupils from overseas to our schools or by importing our brands into their own countries. HMC schools are seen as leading the way in education within the world.

And we should all be unashamedly elitist about wanting every child in this country to be privileged. We have enormous respect for our state sector colleagues and friends for all that they are achieving on unbelievably challenging budgets; we offer support and collaboration which can only make us all stronger.

There is an irony that, at present, our sector is coming under attack by people saying we are old-fashioned and out of touch. But the criticisms that are being made are, in fact, what is old-fashioned and out of touch. Our sector has made significant progress over the past 10 years in sharing, partnering, in giving back.  In organisations like mine, and many of yours, we work in tandem on a daily basis with our colleagues and partners in the state sector. There is always more to be done – of course there is. In education, in any role, there is always more to be done. But the independent schools sector that is described by those who wish to abolish us is the independent schools sector of 20, 30, 40 years ago. It is not the sector of today.

As a child educated by the state in the 70’s, as part of that guinea pig generation for every new idea that could be thrown into the mix, I have strong views on this. And so, let me be quite clear. Children need bedrock, children need stability. Children should not be treated like guinea pigs – you cannot subject the children of this country to years of shifting sands and uncertainty.

Negativity can be published and spread but it misses the point that people are drawn to light and warmth. This is a time for inclusion, acceptance, friendship and a time to inspire harmony. We are not, as is often perceived, fighting against each other, we are fighting with each other in the pursuit of fairness and a privileged childhood for all as our goal.