Clockwise from left: Julie Robinson - General Secretary at Independent Schools Council, Chris King - Chair of Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, Caroline Jordan - President of Girls' Schools Association, Robin Fletcher - Chief Executive at Boarding Schools' Association, Rhiannon Wilkinson - Headmistress of Wycombe Abbey School
What were your highlights for this academic year?
Julie Robinson: We were delighted that proposed amendments to charities legislation were dropped – and we are pleased with the success of the ISSP/ISC partnerships website, schoolstogether.org.
For the first time, we were able to publish research that proved the academic value of independent schooling. And this year’s ISC census report demonstrated – despite the challenging economy – a stable, healthy sector. Robin Fletcher: In our Golden Jubilee year, we awarded the first Boarding Fellowships to Patrick Toland (Rockport College) and Aileen Rees (St Leonard’s School, Fife). Our Boarding Orchard expanded to more than 80 schools and our Golden Jubilee magazine was launched. John Lewis for Business kindly sponsored our Boarding Makeover Challenge, with Horris Hill School winning the £2,000 makeover.
Caroline Jordan: I had the privilege of taking a group of GSA Heads to New York for February’s Global Forum on Girls’ Education. We connected with over 900 other teachers who share our passionate belief in the benefits of educating girls together.
Rhiannon Wilkinson: The construction of our two new boarding houses, in our 120th anniversary year, is the biggest redevelopment programme of my career. Parents and friends of the School have contributed nearly £5 million to the project, confirming their faith in what we are doing. I’m also delighted at the growing numbers of Wycombe girls gaining places at the USA’s leading universities.
Chris King: At a time of constant changes to curriculum and assessment, HMC’s work to improve the setting, marking and grading of public examinations has had demonstrable impact – but we remain very concerned about proposed Ofqual reforms to mark reviews, appeals and the Code of Practice. Elsewhere, we have entered the national debate about teenagers’ wellbeing and mental health, and have enjoyed sharing ideas with colleagues in the state sector.
And the challenges?
JR: Media attitudes can be a challenge because, however positive the facts, journalists seek a provocative story. Even well-balanced media reports can carry negative headlines – potentially damaging to our reputation with families to whom we want to make independent schools ever more accessible.
In a changing political environment, it takes time to develop working relationships with parliamentarians and the challenge is to get across the reality of our friendly, diverse sector.
RF: In autumn 2015 over 50 BSA member schools offered at least 80 places to Syrian refugees, with many more schools offering supplementary support. There are many challenges facing authorities as they seek to manage the refugee crisis, and we hope that the sector can assist these vulnerable children.
CJ: For me, the biggest challenges will always be dealing with people who bash the independent sector or single-sex schools. It’s dispiriting – particularly as, with a rising school-age population, there is plenty for us all to focus on. That’s why GSA schools continue to seek meaningful ways to work with our colleagues elsewhere. You can see some of our projects on the Schools Together website. CK: A major challenge has been to break down independent school stereotypes and dismantle flawed research. For example, it is not true that pupils from state schools do better in their first degree. Generally, independently educated pupils enter university with better qualifications and do better than state school pupils. Only around 2% of state school pupils who enter with the same qualifications perform better. We have also discovered that an independent school education adds an extra two years to a child's educational experience and achievement by age 16. But most journalists and politicians don’t want to hear this.
What is your view on the teacher recruitment 'crisis'?
JR: Teacher recruitment isn’t getting any easier, particularly for maths and the sciences. Teaching has not been getting a good press and the burden of bureaucracy can be off-putting. Our schools are excluded from Teach First but offer wonderfully supportive teaching experiences for recruits. It is wrong to assume that the small number of ISC schools’ overseas campuses contributes to the teacher recruitment crisis, as suggested by Michael Wilshaw. Our schools can provide excellent working conditions to attract great teachers.
CJ: It is sad that the UK is struggling to attract young people into such a worthwhile profession. We seem to have forgotten how enjoyable and inspirational teaching can be. Fortunately, some excellent graduates are considering entering the independent sector – and we are willing to train them ourselves.
RW: While we are fortunate to be largely unaffected, I am very aware that recruitment in education is an increasing challenge. Although teaching is a very rewarding career, rising housing prices in particular make it unattractive to many young people, especially for university graduates starting their careers heavily in debt.
The subtext of many pronouncements from the Department for Education does little to make teaching attractive. The idea that schools and teachers hold the answer to most of the country’s social and economic challenges is somewhat far-fetched.
CK: Recruiting good teachers is an increasing challenge for all schools. The independent sector is not immune – especially in physics, maths and languages – but our schools are well placed. We can help trainees to specialise, access a wide range of school activities, and achieve higher salaries. HMC’s own Teacher Training (HMCTT) pilot scheme provides a new pathway into the profession.
Were there any aspects of the ISC census findings that surprised you?
JR: We were heartened by the overall figures showing that, despite national austerity, independent schooling retains its market share. Cross-sector collaborations abound even in schools which are not charities; we have a high proportion of male teaching staff; and the proportion of overseas pupils has not increased markedly. RF: The census shows over 70,000 boarding pupils at UK private schools for the second year running – complementing the strong demand for state school boarding, which now takes in over 5,000 pupils.
CJ: I was pleased to see so many ISC schools continuing to embrace the benefits of single-sex teaching, with 40% of all ISC schools teaching Year 7-11 pupils this way. I was also heartened to see that – despite economically challenging times – parents continue to value an independent education, with pupil numbers at their highest ever.
RW: Demand for independent education is holding firm. However, there is no room for complacency. Increasing costs and competition over recruitment are very real pressures – especially on smaller schools. There is a growing homogenisation towards co-education and the economies of scale which size bring. Somehow, the independent school world needs to ensure that a real variety of provision is maintained.
CK: The ISC census held few surprises. It shows numbers holding up well generally – but the truth is that the best and strongest are getting better and stronger.
What did you think of the DfE's white paper?
JR: It contains some helpful suggestions, promising developments in teacher training through the College of Teaching, leadership training through a Foundation for Leadership, improved professional development, support with governance and a free recruitment website.
The phrases 'collaboration and competition' and 'supported autonomy' chime with our sector.
The abandonment of the forced academisation programme suggests that care is needed before policies are announced without consultation.
RF: The white paper talks about investing in the fabric of schools to help contribute to achieving excellence. It has been many years since any government has directly invested in improving boarding facilities at state boarding schools, so we will follow this pledge with interest.
CJ: I was pleased to see the offer of a new national teacher vacancy website that enables both maintained and independent schools to advertise vacancies for free. The GSA already offers this facility to its members, with great success.
CK: I was encouraged to see recognition of the importance of educational standards. We have already seen a partial U-turn on ‘academisation’ and we can only wonder what else will fail to come to fruition. Funding for many maintained schools is falling sharply and delivery of some of the white paper’s ideals may simply wither on the vine for lack of money.
What developments would you like to see in the education sector over the coming year?
JR: Recognition of the goodwill and diversity of our sector, and continuing friendly relationships between the sectors. We also hope new ISI inspection arrangements are piloted with success, including the introduction of light-touch inspections for independent schools.
We look for the smooth introduction of public examination reform and some positive developments in primary assessment reform.
RF: We are working with charities and schools minister Lord Nash to place more vulnerable children into boarding schools, and we hope to raise awareness about this project. We would also like to see refugee children benefit from places offered by the boarding sector, as well as some stability and consistency in the inspection process. On top of this, it would benefit all pupils and schools if changes to the structure of GCSEs and A Levels in England could be fully implemented as soon as possible.
CJ: I’d like to see mental health remain in the spotlight, with added focus on the mental wellbeing of both staff and pupils. Mental health and wellbeing are embedded in our events programme for the forthcoming year.
RW: It would be beneficial for all to have clarity on the external examination system. The way in which A Level reform has been introduced so far, in some subjects but not others, beggars belief. The Department for Education should accept that continuity and stability have merit. Change, where necessary, needs to be coherent and properly planned.
My most hoped-for development won’t, sadly, happen. We need to move away from a reliance on examination grades as our basis for assessing young people. Independent schools rightly make much of the broad education they offer: however, we all know that what ‘counts’ are a young person’s final grades. This narrow focus undermines the true purpose of education.
CK: The independent sector should continue to demonstrate that we are part of the solution to improving education for all pupils. Partnerships of all kinds will continue to be important, as will pressing the case for reliable examination results, participation in sport and improved pastoral care. HMC membership is growing, and we will support this increasing membership through high-quality Continuing Professional Development and by harnessing the knowledge and expertise of our Heads.