Present perfect?

IE Today, 20.11.16, five key figures from the independent school sector including HMC Chair Mike Buchanan Head of Ashford School and HMC member Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington College share their thoughts on the year - and the challenges to come. 

Q. What have been the independent school sector’s greatest achievements this year?

MB: Results from HMC schools have never been higher. 51% of our pupils achieved A*/A at A-level this year – twice the national figure. At GCSE, the number of A*/A grades awarded to HMC pupils at GCSE was 66% – three times the national average. At the same time, offer rates for our pupils rose for a seventh year in a row and 82% of graduates with firsts or upper-seconds now come from independent schools compared with 73% from state schools.

HMC held its first single-issue conference in April on good mental health in schools. Alongside all this, the money spent by independent schools on bursaries is at an all-time high, with the total value of fee assistance now at £442.5m.

Q. The sector continues to enjoy strong support, even in more challenging financial times. What do you put down this to?

MB: Our great schools focus on just two key things: maximising the achievements of their pupils – well beyond narrow academic attainment, and developing them as people. Independent research published in 2016 proved that pupils in independent schools throughout their schooling gain the equivalent of two years’ worth of additional education by the time they reach their GCSEs. Crucially, these results were found after prior ability, socioeconomic factors and gender had been taken into account.

Q. What challenges emerged over the past year, and how has the sector responded?

JT: The main challenge I see is financial, with fees now reaching very high levels. Independent schools like ours are increasing our bursary funds significantly in response to this and tying bursaries to scholarships, ensuring that children from ordinary families can be helped.

MB: The types and range of schools in the state sector are a matter for government. This includes the question of whether to build new state grammar schools. Independent schools will work with and adapt to any structure this or any subsequent government puts in place. We have much common ground.

Q. What do you think of the government’s plans to link independent schools’ charitable status to sponsorship of state schools?

JT: We already sponsor our own state academies, Wellington Academy and Wellington Primary Academy. We have found such sponsorship to be enriching and fulfilling and would encourage schools which have the resources to explore this option.

MB: The Prime Minister values variety, wants more bursary places in independent schools and wants to see more places in good state schools. So do we. We hope that an increasing number of able children, living in less affluent parts of the country, will attend new schools, opened in no small part through the tremendous dedication of some independent school Heads. In fact, many already do. Thirty-nine HMC schools sponsor or co-sponsor around 137 state schools around the UK.

Q. What challenges and opportunities do you see in the coming months and years?

JT: We are a school with a very international outlook and 10% of our pupils come to us from outside the UK. We hope that the terms of Brexit do not hinder the continued flow of children to experience the high quality of education that British schools offer.

Q. What partnerships has the sector engaged in recently, and do you perceive further opportunities for collaboration?

MB: The last year has seen an ever-increasing number of long-term, quality partnerships making a real difference to pupils’ lives in both independent and state schools. These include sharing specialist teachers, resources and sports coaches; helping with university applications; holding major events for pupils and communities; offering ourselves as governors; and sharing good practice in wellbeing and pastoral care. Our existing partnerships engage 10,000 state school and 160,000 pupils. We are assessing the impact of all this rich activity and we will use this knowledge to create new projects which will make a lasting difference. The further expansion of subsidised school places is bound to be the right choice for a good many independent schools and coercion is unnecessary and unwise.

Q. Overall, is the sector in a strong place?

JT: Our experience is that the demand for high-calibre, independent education has never been higher and we are very optimistic about the sector’s future.

MB: Independent schools have come through the last recession in great shape. There are always pressures in more economically depressed regions but our results, all-round education and comparative prospects for our pupils have never been better. Most importantly, we are able to concentrate exclusively on what is right for the individual child, away from constantly fluctuating political policies and funding crises.

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