Right at the heart of education…

In the November 2012 issue of Independent Schools Magazine, Dr Christopher Ray, Chairman of HMC and High Master of The Manchester Grammar School reflects on the HMC Annual Conference 2012.

The four topics under debate and discussion at Conference were: academic selection; universities; the Olympic legacy; and the relationship between government and education.

Notable speakers included Sir Kenneth Bloomfield (former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service), Graham Brady MP, Professor Eric Thomas (Vice Chancellor of Bristol University), Lord Moynihan (Chairman of the British Olympic Association), Glenys Stacey (Chief Executive of Ofqual) and Melissa Benn (writer and campaigner).

Additional keynote sessions included: Lord Trimble (who opened the conference), Sir Peter Lampl (speaking on social mobility and a proposal for open access to independent schools), and Graham Stuart MP (Chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee). A highlight for many was the excellent talk by Lord Bew of Queen’s University Belfast on the NI politics.

During my HMC conference speech in Belfast, I discussed briefly each of several matters which in turn were considered in a number of the wider debates:

• Why attacks upon the success of the independent sector represent both a compliment and a cause for  concern as some seek simplistically to place the responsibility with us  for the long-term failures of the state-maintained system.

• The need to take the initiative in discussions with those in power who continue to allow centralising ideologies to constrain the education of our children, exposing their ideological
commitments and their failure to understand the fact that all children are different and have differing needs.

• The positive discrimination agenda in education and why it is utterly misconceived when applied generally without intelligence to university access.

• The need to support Michael Gove in his ambition to drive up standards but not wholly on his terms which at times represent a woeful grasp on the needs of children in schools: we can and will help him if he allows us to do so but he must demonstrate far more flexibility and avoid the temptation to produce one-sizefits-all solutions.

• Following the publication of the HMC report on the shocking state of public examining, the evident need that any reforms to GCSEs and A-levels desired by the Secretary of State for Education first require attention to the foundations of examining and the approach taken by awarding bodies to marking and appeals.

• The irrationality and emotivism underpinning attacks on academic selection: the unwillingness of many with deep-rooted leftleaning prejudices to engage in rational debate.

• The misrepresentation of the independent sector with regard to public benefit and social mobility: the contemptuous dismissal of the immense range of benefits evident in HMC schools because these do not suit the mood of the moment is typically disingenuous and often malicious.

• The ways in which HMC schools at home and abroad provide exemplars of the best in education. My closing remarks emphasised my principal message to members: “Politicians tend to have obsessions rather than strategies. Raising standards is one such obsession. But raising standards should not be a driving aim. Rather this should be a consequence of:

• What happens when a school provides a good education

• What happens when one realizes to the full that all children are different and have different needs

• And importantly what might happen if the government (here as in so many other countries) begins to trust its teachers and the judgements of its teachers.

We need to do all we can to get those in power to understand this.  HMC is willing to work closely with them for the good of the children in all our schools, state and independent. But they should be clear that education should be exciting, exacting, enriching and ennobling. And that every good and successful school provides such an education for its pupils; that there
are many ways in which this may be done; that there is no single pattern, no single mould, no single formula for a successful school.

Look carefully at the HMC at home and overseas, and you will see exemplars of all that is best in education.”

Journalists present generally represented the conference very favourably and took up many of the issues discussed sensibly and in some detail. It was also pleasing to note
that Michael Gove agreed to meet with representatives of the HMC and other heads’ associations to discuss our concerns about marking and examining.

Belfast was a stimulating location for the conference. The visit to the newly-built Titanic Centre, where the annual dinner was held, was entirely memorable and most enjoyable. The annual service in the Cathedral of St Ann was also remarkable not just for the music but for the inclusion of readings in Hebrew and Arabic.

Click here to read the article  © Independent Schools Magazine