HMC Conference: Chair Sally-Anne Huang’s Speech

When I became Chair Elect of HMC back in March 2019, I could never have imagined that our 2020 conference would look like this.  This association means a great deal to me and the annual conference has always been at the heart of all we offer – a source of professional advice, updates on the latest issues in education and employment – but above all a chance to spend time with other members. People will tell you that headship is lonely.  Actually, I’ve always found the opposite to be true for a variety of reasons – but especially because of the collegiality of other heads – if you haven’t done this job, you don’t know how it feels – but the converse is equally true and so there is plenty of empathy and mutual support amongst our membership.

So, to be making this speech to an almost empty room – to know that most of you are miles away from here and from each other – that you have been working relentlessly since March and that you, like me, will be uncertain as to where the next break is coming from.  That fills me with enormous sadness.  And I also feel that now, more than ever, our story is not just one of being in independent schools - it’s simply being in schools since this journey has been shared with our state school partners.  To echo my earlier point about headship itself - if you haven’t run a school during a global pandemic, you can’t know what it’s like to run a school during a global pandemic – that’s a badge of courage owed to every headteacher in this country right now, whatever their setting.

As a Headteacher, you will be used to leading from the front – to being accountable to parents, inspectorates and your colleagues – to delivering the highest possible levels of service in academic provision, pastoral care and co-curricular activities.  We know that’s what we do.  But, since March, we have also been required to provide key-worker childcare centres, to move entire staff and pupil bodies to remote teaching and learning, to devise, monitor and justify the provision of centre assessed GCSE and A level grades for our pupils. To risk assess, staff and manage the re-opening of schools and to make decisions about health care where guidance has been nebulous and last minute - sometimes non-existent.  And, that frontline role in the battle against COVID, gives school heads the right to be heard about the future of education post the pandemic.

If you had told me in March 2019 that I would be addressing a group of people who had spear-headed such innovation and flexibility, who had navigated such impossibly choppy waters, and had stayed energetic, positive and generous in the face of all of this – I might have doubted it would have been possible.  But, although I am sorry to be speaking to an almost empty room – I do consider it a unique privilege to be the Chair of HMC in this particular year and to be able to thank you, to acknowledge you and to celebrate you publicly.  We have all learnt that extraordinary times call for extraordinary leadership and I am proud that there is so much excellent leadership in HMC schools.

And, of course, in HMC schools we have another pressure – be the very best you can be, strive for excellence, but don’t demonstrate too much pride in this since, rather than celebrate our success, many will blame us for the difficulties faced by others.  Because at HMC we are also used to being blamed for society’s ills. If someone who left one of our schools thirty years ago does something unpopular, it’s because he (and it usually is he) went to one of our schools.  Let’s ignore the thousands and thousands of NHS workers, research scientists, fund-raisers, volunteers and, heaven knows, teachers, who also passed through our schools and have contributed positively to society. Let’s not mention them because they don’t fit the popular narrative.  And some find it convenient to ignore the fact that pulling down the 7% of pupils and teachers in our sector does nothing to help the 93% being managed by the state – in fact it will actively damage them given limited resources and the brilliant partnership work that helps all involved.  As I have indicated, the sense of shared purpose across all schools has never been greater.

I think the politicians and the journalists sometimes forget that teachers work well with teachers, whatever the setting.  Thus, the unity between HMC and the Association of School and College Leaders in recent months while we have been tackling algorithms, burnout and pupil well-being.  And I am delighted that Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of ASCL, will be joining our conference tomorrow.  In the academic year of 2019/20 – before COVID hit, HMC schools gave more than 220,000 hours to partnership work   - if you break that down, it’s 9421 days of time (if those were 24 hour days) - 25.88 years of staff time.   If you work on 12 hour days – 18,842 days of time and nearly 52 years.  Since COVID, I know from personal experience that lots of that working is looking at bridging the gap between those who had a positive educational experience during lockdown and those who fell behind.  And that’s not to tick a box on a government worksheet.  It’s because, teachers naturally help other teachers when finding solutions for their pupils.

As Head of an HMC school I expect to be cast as one of society’s villains.  The reality is I’m a girl from Bolton who decided to teach English.  I know that I am much more fortunate than many of my peers since I have always taught in schools where I was offered flexibility of curriculum, smaller class sizes, access to resources.  But, I still get out of bed every day to improve things for young people and, increasingly in recent years, not just the young people in my own school.  So, I’m not sure why I should be judged more harshly than those in other professions. I’m not a saint and I stand in awe of intensive care nurses, the fire services and care workers. But, to quote Rizzo from Grease – ‘there are worse things I could do’. But none of this is new – this is a well-worn type of stereotyping and prejudice and we are used to it.

What I do think is new and troubling is the increasing tendency across society as a whole to look for difference and division rather than common ground.  To look for someone to blame, rather than a solution to a shared problem. At HMC, we are often the people who are blamed, and, although I would be the first to acknowledge the difference between our budgets and those on offer to our colleagues in state schools, the reality is, we are willing and able to help with the problem. Members will all know that, when we spend time with state school heads, we have more that unites than divides us.  I don’t believe state school heads have spent the last six months wishing that independent schools didn’t exist but, I do know that they have wished for better-timed announcements, clarity and consistency over exam results and consideration for the mental health of their colleagues and pupils. As have we.

Where a blitz spirit might have united our grandparents during the second world war, there seems to be a real concern that COVID will divide society further – already the gaps are widening, in mental health, economic stability, and, of course education.  Yes, we await further news from the immunologists and scientists who are seeking to understand the virus and, we hope, provide the world with a vaccine.  But, I would suggest that there is another kind of healing that also has to take place. The country needs to recover from multiple wounds. Not only do we need to restore ourselves medically, but in terms of inclusion, education and economics. The UK needs its most successful institutions, institutions like ours, more than ever before, to help it heal.  

Back in 2019, when I started to plan the programme for this conference, I had inclusion at the front of my mind.  I stand here today, several steps removed from the stereotype of an HMC chair myself.  I am not a 6 foot white man in his 50s, in a dark suit.  And I am mindful of the fact that, for the past three years, a membership which is predominantly male has elected female officers to represent them.  There is a very good ‘he for she’ story amongst HMC heads – where female leaders have been supported by male colleagues. And, as an employer, HMC also sets an excellent example with the lead roles in education, communications and professional development, as well as the Chief Operating officer, all being women.  And, from the very start, I wanted to put before you a programme of speakers who have cut through prejudice and stereotyping themselves – and it’s a highly inclusive programme in terms of gender, race and sexuality. 

Then, in the spring of 2020, the world reacted to the murder of George Floyd and all organisations had to respond to that challenge and examine their own progress and approach.  The history of HMC schools will produce both heroes and villains.  Slave-traders and emancipationists.  It’s important that we acknowledge all aspects of this history.  However, it’s also crucial that we look to the future and this is why there will be an extended session during this conference, dedicated to those challenges and how we can make a difference in diversifying our curriculum -and I am delighted that Sonia Watson from the Stephen Lawrence Trust will be speaking this week and partnering with us during this academic year.  At HMC we are uniquely placed to progress this issue, given the freedom we have to define our own curriculum.

Similarly, we have the opportunity to heal another wound caused by Covid 19 and the restrictions its arrival generated.  This is in the performing arts.   Stephen King once wrote that ‘life isn’t a support system for art – it’s the other way around’ – and there can never have been clearer evidence of that than in lockdown.  Try getting through those weeks without music, literature and film. The irony was that, at a period where people were most coming to appreciate the contribution the arts make to their mental health and wellbeing –the arts industries themselves were being decimated.  The closure of theatres and the impossibility of live performance generally has been devastating. In HMC schools, we have long been the guardians of music and drama.  Not because we think we do them better than anyone else – but because we have the resources to hire specialists and provide facilities.  We will be labelled as elite because our pupils, on average, have more access to orchestras, theatres, and specialist teaching than their friends in state schools.  But are we actually supposed to stop doing these things because our partners in the state sector have been under-resourced?  We are not trying to keep the arts for ourselves – we are trying to keep that precious flame burning so that it is there for others – now and in the future. We know that already 82% of HMC schools are engaged in music partnerships with state schools. This week we will also be launching work with the Music Teachers’ Association – the largest and longest established association of music teachers in the UK, which is made up predominantly of state school teachers, to see how we can grow partnership across the sectors further and guarantee the survival of school-based music in a post-covid world. 

However, as someone who works with young people every day, I fear that the biggest scar left by 2020, the hardest wound to heal, might be the divide between generations.  I for one am tired of hearing the young described as snowflakes.  In this country, I cannot think of a group of young people out of war time, of whom more has been asked or from whom more has been taken than those in our nation’s schools in 2020.  Anyone who, like me, was with 18- year-olds in March when they suddenly learnt that not just their chance to prove themselves in exams, but also all those joyous rites of passage at the end of their school days had been taken from them – anyone who saw them pick themselves up, move on, adapt, they would not call them snowflakes.  Then they had the traumatic mess that was A level results – and now they are being charged £9000 a year for a university experience which will be remote at best, with the threat of being locked down in halls of residence when they have not had time to make friends or adjust to being away from home.  It’s too much.

Those of us currently in positions of authority grew up without war and pandemics.  We went to university for free, had a good chance of buying our own homes and the opportunity to do something about global warming before it was too late.  Education transformed my life when I was the first in my family to attend Oxford university.  I was there from 1990 – 1993 – the same time as some other HMC heads and various MPs and leaders.  At the end of my first year, I remember going to Magdalen College Ball where The Kinks were the headline act.  The fact that I saw The Kinks play live may be one of my greatest achievements at Oxford – I was not an undergraduate of any note.  At the end of the set, Ray Davies, the lead singer, looked across the crowded ball room floor and said to us all – ‘You people are going to end up running the country – don’t mess it up.’  But he didn’t say ‘mess.’

Even if you ignore the fact that it was an assumption that the country’s leaders would come from one – maybe two - universities – I have often thought about that comment and how my generation might have done.  And I have to say now, I think we may have let Sir Ray Davies down.  Forgive me if the anecdote makes that sound in any way flippant.  But I honestly think we should have done better by the generation who will follow us and I hope that, especially for those of us who work with the young now, that we might get to put some of it right.

We need to heal these wounds for them – continue improving access to our schools, deliver a curriculum that suits their needs, and continue to question what’s going on in our exam system and in our universities.  I know that HMC schools are already pulling in this direction – I know that I am pushing at an open door.  But I feel the need now is urgent and that, rather than being the ivory tower we can sometimes be perceived to be - we are instead an essential life raft for liberal education, civilized debate about the future, respect for expertise and for the development of sport and of the arts.  Because these things were being challenged before COVID.  They were underfunded before lockdown and they are in even worse shape now. Even if we, at HMC, don’t have access to all the young in the UK – we can at least preserve these things for those who are in our care and those who would rather work with us than accuse us. For us, our independence is our strength here - because we are free to make creative choices and to challenge assumptions in all these areas.  We can steer this ark through the flood and keep its contents safe for everyone when the storms we are currently encountering have passed.

But I don’t want to make the young people in our schools out to be helpless victims either.  Because I have enormous faith that they will be the solution to this problem too.  Even before COVID, I was amazed by the extent to which the young people I met were politically aware, socially responsible and engaged with the world.  Yes – they felt disenfranchised by much of what was going on around them – and that was before they got sent home in March – but they also displayed energy, creativity and a sense of purpose.  When they came back to school in September, they were so delighted to be there that I think it’s possible that they may have a unique sense of the value not just of education but of community and social interaction - precisely because of what 2020 has thrust upon them – and this is turning them into a remarkable and powerful generation.  Looking out of the window of my office at school, I have a view of our pupils going about their daily business of heading off to lessons, sports pitches and music practice rooms-  and generally enjoying each other’s company which, for all it’s my job to support them, is enormously motivating to me.  I am reminded of the Thomas Hardy poem known to all English teachers and many GCSE candidates, where the narrator looks out over a bleak, winter landscape, devoid of hope, and is struck by the sudden song of a thrush, who keeps singing with ‘joy illimited’ in spite of the fact that there seems little to celebrate.  And Hardy concludes that there must be ‘some blessed hope whereof he knew and I was unaware’.

Just so, the positivity and energy of young people gives me hope that healing is possible and that all of us with any sort of influence, and especially those of us working in schools, should keep striving for something better for this generation.  And for all young people, in our own schools and beyond.

And so, I know that we are all exhausted – that the days, the weeks, the terms are long and that time off is a distant memory.  But we have reason to keep going, like Samwise and Frodo, we can get the ring up the mountain.  We didn’t ask for this task, but we have been given it, and I am hugely proud of the way we are facing it.