Chris King’s keynote speech to Annual HMC Conference of UK’S Leading Independent Schools

6 October 2015
Posted by Heidi Salmons

“The current situation is untenable. We are facing a perfect storm, of both decreasing public confidence and increasing pressure in the system, as the greater emphasis on end of year exams creates even more work for examiners over the summer. HMC has helped lead the way on reform and under my Chairmanship we will not rest until then UK has the quality assured exam system its young people deserve. “

Chris King, Headmaster of Leicester Grammar School and Chairman of HMC, will use his inaugural speech today (Tues 6 October 2015) to launch an attack on the exam system and call for wide scale and urgent reform to benefit young people in all types of schools across the UK.

Speaking to an audience of 275 Heads of the UK’s leading independent schools, Chris King will point out that the “cottage industry” exam marking system is not fit for purpose and has led to 414,000 exam marks being challenged last year, with 77, 450 grades being revised – a 42% increase on 2013.

Whilst these figures are very high, he will point out that they potentially mask the true extent of the problem as some state schools in particular are unable to find the time and resources to battle with a “byzantine” appeals system.

He will announce that HMC has joined a new task force of experts from the exam boards and other associations of Head Teachers to tackle the growing problem and say:

“In schools across the UK this summer pupils have yet again been given frankly unbelievable marks or grades which catapults them into Clearing or, worse, into limbo, as their university of choice hangs onto them whilst deciding what to do.

“We know of cases where, after re-remarks come through, pupils are confirmed as having exceeded the offer of their first choice university yet have nevertheless been told – inexplicably – that they no longer have a place for that year. So they have been let down twice; first by inaccurate marking and second by a university unwilling to behave honourably. We all know this can have a terrible impact on the young people concerned.

“So why is this happening? Because of a lack of full accountability by exam boards, an inadequate examiner workforce, a confusing and byzantine appeals process and, it seems, more ruthless behaviour by some universities.

“And how do we know this? First, exam boards are under no obligation to release their re-grade statistics subject by subject. Nor are schools told which exam boards are the worst offenders on remarking. Second, Ofqual figures suggest that 6% of examiners are ‘inadequate’; 6% translates to a vast number of questions that potentially are inadequately marked.  Official statistics show that a total of 77,450 GCSE and A Levels exam papers were re-graded last year after results day – a shocking figure. We know that not all schools have the time and resources to battle with the system so in fact the true number could be higher.

The fact is the exam workforce has been operating as a cottage industry which, despite some modernisation, now needs to reinvent itself for the 21st century. HMC has been working closely with Ofqual for three years, to identify the true extent of the problems and to find solutions. Considerable progress has been made but there is still the necessity for further serious reform.”

“Therefore HMC is calling for the following as a matter of urgency:

  1. Better set and better marked exams to create consistency across subjects and boards. A current example of inadequacy is modern foreign language A Levels where, despite changes to exam paper design this year, we still do not trust that the rank ordering of pupils is always correct. This is particularly frustrating given the recent reports of UK business being hindered by poor foreign language skills.
  2. A larger and more skilled marker workforce which is better trained, reasonably paid and more accountable.
  3. A fair and transparent appeals process which is easy to understand, equally accessible to all, and focuses on the quality of marking not the analysis of procedure.

“Until this happens, HMC will continue to demand re marks and intervene with universities who are refusing to honour offers made to mismarked candidates. In addition, we are starting to work closely with exam boards and other heads associations to plan for significant improvements to the number and quality of tomorrow’s examiners. Independent schools already provide more than our share of qualified examiners and together we need to find ways of encouraging more to take part from all schools and colleges.”

Stop carping and work with us

Background: HMC schools have just seen a record-breaking year. Numbers of pupils in UK independent schools (625,000 in 2,600 schools), numbers in HMC schools (215,271), HMC schools partnering with state schools and the community (99.7%) and independent school fee assistance (a million pounds a day paid to one in three pupils) are all at an all-time high.  

Mr King will tell the Conference that HMC “is growing as a force for positive change in education” whose school Heads want all pupils to reach their full potential. He will launch a robust defence of the value HMC schools bring to all pupils, not only through partnerships and fee assistance but through its work on improving exams, the transition of students from school to university, sport safety and participation and the way pupils deal with stress and mental health problems.

“…you, your schools and HMC are very far indeed from being a cause of the educational challenges the UK faces. On the contrary, you are crucial to the country’s future success. It is clearly absurd to blame the sector which educates 7% of the school population for the ills of the educational experience of the other 93%.  This seems to me to be a distraction tactic, steering the debate away from serious and long term issues such funding crises and teacher shortages.

“We have made good progress in demonstrating HMC’s genuine commitment to improving education for every pupil. We will continue to prove this through our growing, multi-million pound commitment to bursaries and partnerships, our dedication to promoting good mental health in schools, and our influencing on key issues such as better public exams, more accurate marking, timely admissions decisions by universities, and improved academic and pastoral support for students as they move from school to higher education. If we were ever in an ivory tower, we climbed down long ago.”

I say to our critics: Stop the politically charged, sterile rhetoric which gets us nowhere. Stop indulging in Toffism and out of date preconceptions about the nature of our schools.  Above all stop believing that you can make the weak stronger by making the strong weaker. Instead of carping, accept we want to make a positive contribution.

“And I say to decision makers and influencers of all persuasions – we are eager to engage with you. Teach us and learn from us, and I know that together we can form communities of aspiration and inspiration designed to fit all our pupils for the 21st century.”

We are the only truly independent schools

Mr King will tell the Conference that “independence and innovation is in our blood”.

“..we would not be able to undertake much of the innovation and public benefit activity were it not for our core strength – our independence.  This we hold in common with all schools in our sector, but certainly not outside it - schools badged like us are not what we are.  Increasingly the term ‘independent state school’ is coming into use – it is however an oxymoron.  How is a state academy truly independent when, through Ofsted and performance tables, the government can set most of the curriculum?  And, of course, a Free School is essentially an academy by any other name.

Our independence is both critical and comes at a cost. It is often forgotten, for example, that the reason we charge fees is precisely so we can remain independent. We choose the curriculum and the public examinations which best suit our pupils. We helped to develop IGCSEs when it was clear that GCSEs did not prepare our pupils well enough to make the step to A levels or IB. (And I, for one, spend not one nanosecond worrying about Leicester Grammar School’s ‘nul point’ for English and Maths IGCSEs in the league tables). We were early adaptors of the Extended Project - pioneered by Rugby School - because it develops skills so important for the world of university and work. We also helped to create another new qualification, the Pre-U. … We are resolutely unafraid to do our own thing.”  

Future-proofing HMC schools

Whilst emphasising their excellence and value, Mr King will challenge HMC school Heads to step back and consider the next phase of their development, and ask themselves whether the education they provide continues to prepare our young people fully for the world in which they will grow up and work.

 “Alongside our colleagues in the state sector, we are undergoing some of the most rapid educational, social and technological change ever experienced which will demand we transform the way we run our schools….. But this is exactly the time to be looking forward and using our cumulative experience to create a better future for our pupils and for all pupils.

We face an inevitable challenge, to remodel our approach to teaching and learning and give our pupils new skills, attitudes and knowledge to help them solve problems we have yet to encounter.   As a community of some of the greatest schools in the country – and the world - HMC has every reason to face these challenges with optimism. We have a centuries-old foundation of outstanding, liberal, holistic education on which to build.”

Prioritising good mental health

A key priority for my year as Chairman will be to gather a better understanding of what we are dealing with and find the best ways to support our pupils in the future. We will approach this by working more closely with our state school colleagues and the best experts we can find – as well as listening more carefully to what our pupils tell us.

“Parents are of course key to success – the chicken soup of mental health as they have been called – so another priority for my time as Chairman is to explore a new partnership with parents, understanding the pressures experienced at home and the worries they have over how to navigate the teenage years, and learning how to work with families to create a new and powerful safe space for the young people in our care. As ever HMC schools have a great basis from which to start. 90% of our schools already run classes for parents on how to spot signs of teenage anxiety or distress; one London school for example held a mumsnet type evening where parents of older teenagers discussed with parents of younger children how they manage teenage issues such as the dreaded 16th and 18th birthday parties – the effects of which, as we know, have the potential to spill over into the classroom on Monday morning.”

First anniversary results for HMC Teacher Training

Mr King will announce the progress of HMC Teacher Training on its first year anniversary.

“HMC Teacher Training (HMCTT), launched at last year’s Conference, is already creating a brand new pathway into teaching and aims to increase the pool of qualified teachers available to all schools – particularly important as concerns grow over decreasing teacher numbers.  Developed by HMC and supported for most trainees by the University of Buckingham, it has met all the objectives of its pilot year.  From a standing start, 1400 aspiring teachers have recorded their interest in joining the scheme.  Already 69 successful appointees have embarked on the two year programme which will lead to them achieving a PGCE and then QTS. Our recruits might teach first in HMC schools, but they will emerge qualified and prepared to develop their career in a wide variety of schools in the UK or internationally. 

“This development could not come at a more critical time. You will be aware that nearly half of heads who took part in a recent ASCL survey reported vacancies in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science – at the very time when the Government is demanding a greater emphasis on STEM subjects. Last month, DfE figures showed one in 100 posts vacant or filled temporarily. The existing teacher supply model does not work for state schools and it is not going to work for us.

“At the same time there is more that we can – and should – do to offer our insight and expertise to the live national debate on initial teacher training.  It’s very welcome that Patrick Derham has been asked to join the Government’s Independent Working Group set up to develop a core ITT framework to ensure primary and secondary training focuses more clearly on priority content.  So, too, is the fact that Ministers wish to engage with us on the question of subject knowledge in schools and among those entering the teacher profession.  We will readily join these discussions and share our experiences, and many in this room would, I am sure, welcome the opportunity to become Teaching Schools, if a few of the bureaucratic hurdles could be loosened just a little.”

Unique contribution to UK schools’ academic success

Mr King will remind the Conference that HMC pupils achieved twice as many top grades at A Level as those in state schools in 2015 and nearly a third of GCSE candidates were awarded A* grades compared to 6.6% nationally.

At the same time, the holistic, liberal tradition of education in the UK’s top independent schools continues to thrive despite the growing emphasis on end of year exams:

HMC is proud to have many of the country’s most academically successful schools amongst its members; globally recognised institutions which strengthen the UK’s international reputation. 

We take the long view, achieving our excellent academic results through a broad-based, liberal approach which, most importantly, produces young people who are confident, successful and willing to have a go at anything.”   


The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference represents 275 of the leading independent schools in the British Isles. They include coeducational, single sex, day and boarding schools.

For interviews with Chris King or other HMC school Heads, please contact Sue Bishop, HMC External Relations Director, on 07787 294808 or [email protected]

To download a copy of the full speech please click here.