HMC Conference 2018: Chair, Shaun Fenton

1 October 2018
Posted by HMC Press Office

I approach this conference buoyed by the affirmation Damian Hinds gave representatives of the independent sector during a Downing Street meeting this summer. He spoke positively of our schools and our wider contribution to the state sector and invited us to continue to work in partnership with our state sector colleagues, expand our bursary programmes and be a distinctive and positive contributor to what he praised as the plurality of education in this country. It is an invitation which we gladly accept.

I want to say a little about:

  • partnerships and our contribution to schools and our wider community
  • bursaries and social mobility
  • standards and attainment
  • the value that we add to a great education
  • the ingredients of a great education
  • the importance of having a post Brexit international perspective


Partnerships and our contribution to our community

I am a state school teacher who has had just this single job in the independent sector. After 20 years in the state sector and, as a recent joiner to the independent sector, I remember being surprised and delighted at the ways in which HMC schools contribute positively to the national and educational landscape as part of their everyday work. These are not necessarily things that set our schools apart from state schools; indeed, in my experience, the best schools in any sector tend to have many similarities. Some of the many examples that I have seen of independent schools' contribution include:

  • raising awareness and creating resources around the issue of wellbeing and mental health
  • working with universities as they seek to develop effective transition from school to university
  • a commitment among teachers in our schools to mark exam scripts for the national awarding organisations
  • the way in which we have helped maintain national qualifications that have small numbers of candidates - and, at the same time, have helped a range of university subject departments to survive
  • the staff in our schools who serve as state school governors and charity trustees
  • our contribution as local and regional employers (including of apprentices), and as economic hubs in the supply chain of economic goods and services
  • our support in specialist teacher training provision in threatened subject areas
  • student volunteering
  • fund raising for charity
  • our role in trade delegations, alongside UK universities, in developing influence especially in the export-oriented work of the Department for International Trade
  • the growing number of bursaries including those for the most disadvantaged in society
  • supporting community groups from adult education to the scouts, from parent access centres to local sports clubs
  • the energy every HMC school puts into state school partnership work in areas such as academic enrichment, targeted teaching, sports coaching, use of facilities, arts and cultural events, staff training and more

As an example of the work that we do that benefits children in all schools, the work on wellbeing is, for many HMC members, the most important. This work has been given a focus over a number of years, starting with HMC's Spring Conference in 2015. Our Tech Control campaign, to empower young people to take careful control of their use of technology, has been received positively by many state and independent schools and the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, and our awareness-raising stories and video have been viewed by millions of people.

This partnership, with Digital Awareness UK, gives practical help to ensure schools and families can channel young people's use of social media in positive ways. Further resources on this theme - overseen by our Wellbeing Working Group - are being publicly launched at this conference. We know that education is not a choice between high achievement and good pastoral care; happy and healthy children are far more likely to be high achieving and then move on to be happy and fulfilled adults both in their personal and professional lives.


Bursaries and social mobility

Independent schools are committed to providing increasing numbers of bursaries to children from lower income families and already spend £362 million each year - almost a million pounds every day- on means-tested discounted fees for pupils in the UK, up by almost 5% in the last year.

Meanwhile, new global partnerships are providing funds which can help keep fees down in the UK and pay for reduced and free places. Just one of our schools, Dulwich College, has ten campuses abroad and this is helping realise its ambition to move from having 30% of their UK senior school pupils on fee relief to 50%, with most of the pupils receiving large reductions. And this will be managed alongside a large and deep-rooted community partnership programme in South London. King's College School, Wimbledon and Wellington College are just two other HMC schools which will significantly increase bursaries funded by overseas school income.

In turn, this is just a small part of the whole. Many HMC boarding schools are now working with local authorities to help educate growing numbers of looked after children.

We hear politicians say that more places are needed in good schools, especially for the most disadvantaged, and we are responding enthusiastically: 43% of the 43,000 bursary pupils in independent schools already pay less than half their fees. Our offer remains on the table to create up to 10,000 bursary places each year at an overall lower cost than the cost of educating them in a state school and with those places targeted exclusively at the most disadvantaged in society. Our schools are offering more means-tested bursaries every year and are keen to explore ways to do more, much more.


Standards and attainment

In and beyond the classroom, there is no doubt that HMC schools make an important contribution to the reputation of UK education. Nevertheless, we can only continue to work hard on partnerships and social mobility programmes if we remain focused on delivering a world-class education.

While there is more to a great education than exam results, academic performance still matters. We remain in great academic shape, with our A Level students having gained more than double the A* grades than the national average and nearly two thirds achieving A/7 or better in this year's reformed GCSEs-three times the national average.

UK independent schools certainly educate children to achieve great things. Research suggests that, when family background is removed from the picture, our record in exam results is second to none. Being educated at an independent school is worth up to two years of additional learning and the added value from an independent school education is seen in improved career chances and earning potential in later life - never mind the way that former independent school students disproportionately represent the country in sport and the arts, politics and professional life.

There is far more to a great education than lessons in the classroom or the outcomes that can be measured in a league table, and this is an ethos we want to share.

Whilst we should be rightly proud of the academic value added, as a teacher - and as a parent - I see compelling strengths in our child-centred, wrap-around package of personal attention, pastoral care, arts, drama and sport. Exam results may open doors of opportunity but developing qualities of character in young people makes an even bigger difference, exemplified by the many pupils from our schools who go on to make the world a better place.

We continue to prepare students well at GCSE, IGCSE, A Level, IB, Pre U, EPQ and a range of other qualifications. However, important though these results are, this is not our core purpose. We must work to rebalance a system which is in danger of being too exam and data­focused, stressing both pupils and teachers and sucking the joy out of learning (and teaching). It is time to make a new case for what really matters in education, and make it stick.


The ingredients of a great education

I hope, as the first Chair of HMC to have worked for a local education authority in both 'failing' and 'outstanding' schools, and to have been head of a comprehensive, academy, grammar and independent school, that I may bring a new and distinctive perspective. As a child I was educated in the state and the independent sectors, I was a bursary student and became the first of my family to go to university when I went up to Oxford.

I understand from personal experience the value of a transformative education and the value of collaboration. I was an education sponsor governor in a fresh-start academy; I have seen excellent collaborative groups across my teaching career; and I recently spoke to promote international collaboration at an international conference for schools in Dubai. It is a constant refrain for me - schools in the UK have more that unites us than divides us. The best state schools are world class and help educate children to make the world a better place; so do the leading independent schools. We ask our pupils to work collaboratively, and so must we.

To get this right we need to give those who live and breathe education a voice, away from politicians, policymakers, inspection and accountability regimes. As a nation, we need to listen more to students, parents, teachers, school leaders and governors. Working with Geoff Barton of ASCL, I have started talking to representatives of these groups, rarely assembled as one group with shared interests. I have been inspired at the clarity of purpose and vision that easily starts to emerge and we will look at that during the conference.

I know many of you feel, as I do, that those who spend their lives in schools need more say in what goes on inside them. So I hope that this is a small step towards educators having a stronger voice.

We will speak only for what is best for pupils. No child should leave school feeling that education has been little more than life's longest to-do list. Or that they are unsure whether the boxes were worth ticking in the first place. All young people deserve an education which prepares them for the future by nurturing their talents, character and sense of moral purpose.

This, based loosely on our discussions, plus some thinking and reading of my own, is my first stab at top ten ingredients for an education which will last a lifetime. They are in no particular order and they do not aim not to drill down into the detail of an optimum curriculum. Rather, they are offered humbly as the essence of what such a curriculum should offer children.

  1. Joy: We value most the education that is a wonderment and fun, which inspires children and is key to enjoying their childhood at school and outside.
  2. Curiosity: Nurturing an inquiring mind is one of the most important jobs of a teacher. It doesn't matter whether it's science, humanities or anything else which excites them, the most important thing is to ignite a love of learning for life.
  3. Good mental health: This is the bedrock of a happy life and necessary to learn to the best of one's ability. Schools are increasingly focused on instilling the attitudes necessary to deal with difficulties, gain self-worth, make good decisions and steer through life's twists and turns.
  4. Knowledge: We must not forget that a bedrock of knowledge enriches life, promotes understanding and helps gain the qualifications necessary for young people to progress and be economically independent.
  5. Physical health and happiness: Children need to be healthy and happy to be high achieving-in that order. A community that nurtures a sense of safety and ensures their children are healthy, get enough sleep and can face the world with optimism will be one that 'gives them roots, then wings'.
  6. Focus and aspiration: This is particularly pressing given the smash-and-grab raid on young people's attention by the technology giants who spend hundreds of millions of pounds perfecting how to tempt them away from more mundane matters such as homework. Young people are far in advance of adults in their knowledge of technology and they need to be empowered to control their own decision making.
  7. Creativity: The ability to think and express ourselves creatively is likely to trump the ability to memorise facts. Machines may know more but humans will need to think more.
  8. Moral and ethical purpose: Great teachers can help create a personal and communal sense of a moral purpose which promotes good behaviour and helps pupils find their way in the world and make it a better place.
  9. Flexibility: We know young people will have multiple jobs in the future, and will be required to deal with machines which can out-pace and outwit them. Adaptability will be a core skill.
  10. Emotional literacy: Understanding the quality of friendships in particular and relationships generally is often laid down in school. Experts tell us that dealing with machine intelligence will demand that we discover what it truly means to be human, and being emotionally aware could be an increasingly valued skill.

I hope that with these core skills and values in place, our schools can teach children to travel the path from knowledge to understanding to wisdom - and do much better in that way than previous generations. Many of us will remember our school song: at Reigate Grammar School it is 'To be a Pilgrim'. As students graduate from RGS I commission them to go on as pilgrims, people on a special journey with good purpose, to make the world a better place.

To build these foundations schooling in Britain needs a huge dose of authentic common sense and a sure touch from those who respond to and think about children every day - at school and at home. This will be far more likely to succeed than a truth that starts in Westminster and is the result of policy initiatives or accountability metrics.

As leading independent schools we remain ready and willing to work with others to understand the common features of a great education - those that span the state and independent sectors, and span time zones and national boundaries.


Leading independent schools located overseas

It is those core principles of a great education which have formed the foundation of an unprecedented period of global growth for leading independent schools. At a time of crippling political uncertainty, the UK's great independent schools have remained trusted and consistent, preparing young people brilliantly for the future whilst respecting what has held true in education for hundreds of years.

British independent schools currently dominate the market for English language international schools, and the demand for the best known British independent schools has grown faster than any other part of the sector.

Why? Because families around the world view our top independent schools as a gold standard. There is huge and growing demand for British-style independent education and that strong reputation is an asset and should not be a well-kept secret.

I have been fascinated to read the latest information supplied to HMC by respected market intelligence company ISC Research. This says that:

  • A total of 73 different British independent schools (including 42 in HMC) have opened sister schools abroad or partnered with an international school. Distinguished HMC schools stand at the forefront of this new trend, including Dulwich College, Harrow School, Rugby School, Marlborough College, Wellington College, Wycombe Abbey School, Shrewsbury School, Repton School, Malvern College, Merchiston Castle School, Haileybury and Sherborne School. Harrow opened in Bangkok in 1998 and Dulwich College in Shanghai in 2003. Harrow now has five sister schools and Dulwich ten
  • 63 British independent schools (including 36 in HMC) have opened sister schools or partnered with an international school in the last ten years
  • The rate of growth is higher than ever before, with 11 international British independent schools opening their doors to students in the last academic year (2017-2018)
  • There are also several leading independent schools opening campuses this year. These include Sedbergh School opening a sister school in China, King's College School Wimbledon opening two schools in China (in Wuxi and Hangzhou), and Merchiston Castle School opening in Shenzhen
  • 18 British independent schools (including 10 in HMC) are due to open in the next two years, mainly in China but also in Singapore, Egypt, Oman and India. Shrewsbury School and Malvern College are extending their international reach with new additional international schools. Wellington College already has three schools in China and works closely with three new schools opening this year; two of these are in China (both of which are bilingual schools for Chinese children) and one in Thailand (Wellington International College Bangkok).
  • Schools are bringing funds back which can be spent on bursaries for lower income families and holding down fee increases as costs rise in the UK
  • ISC Research describes this as "an educational phenomenon" led by a reputation for academic rigour and centred on preparation of the whole child for career and life success.

Having spent some time recently in China, Hong Kong and the Middle East, it is clear to me that the impact of HMC-linked schools on the reputation of the UK and on international relationships is hugely positive.

The interest of overseas communities in schools linked with HMC, local and expat parents but also educators and policy makers, is clear and growing. I ask why, and the answer is consistent. HMC schools are seen to offer education which ranks amongst the best in the world, an education that adds huge value to young people and their life chances.

Is the strength of the international reputation of the UK independent sector something we should avoid mentioning for fear of provoking retaliation from opponents of our schools? On the contrary. I hope that, whatever our political perspectives, we can pull together and support the strengths of the UK, and our independent schools are one of those strengths.

As Brexit creates tension in Europe and the need for new international relationships increases, our schools are quietly helping to educate some of the next generation of global thinkers and leaders here at home and in partner schools overseas. Moreover, the proliferation of HMC-related schools internationally may be helping rather than hindering the long-term retention of staff in the UK. A recent COBIS survey found that nearly a third of international school teachers were thinking about quitting the profession before moving abroad, and many return to the UK, typically due to a desire to return home (45 per cent) or because of family commitments (44 per cent).

In both settings our key goal is to promote global citizenship, good relationships, contextual knowledge and cultural understanding, rather than ignorance and misunderstanding.

British independent education is a force for good, both at home and abroad. We are promoting knowledge and education rather than prejudice and ignorance, believing in engagement and cooperation rather than distance and suspicion.

It is worth noting that typical overseas HMC sister schools are preparing children in those countries to have the values, skills, qualifications and temperament necessary to give them the choice to enter and flourish in the liberal university traditions of the UK, Canada, Australia or the US.

Global partnerships bring with them opportunities to help young people from the UK and from our international partner schools to live and work together in the new global village.

As a country we stand on the brink of great change and our schools have a part to play.

More unites us than divides those of us working in Britain's schools. Together we can stop education being a political football and focus instead on supporting young people to be happy, healthy and high achieving. Working together we can do great things but we need to put people above politics or the losers will be the pupils.

I hope that you enjoy the conference.

Shaun Fenton

HMC Chair, 2018/19 and Headmaster, Reigate Grammar School

Shaun Fenton Signature