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Keeping it independent

Challenges and triumphs: Hannah Vickers looks back at how 2017 has treated the independent sector, and what schools can expect from 2018

Posted by Julian Owen | December 02, 2017 | School life

It’s been a difficult year for schools, with Brexit and austerity continuing to create an uncertain future and the introduction of new GCSEs this summer causing nearly one in eight secondary schools to underperform. Despite this uncertainty and upheaval, the independent sector continues to enjoy strong support, which school leaders put down to having the freedom to innovate.

Having the resources to be able to offer truly pupil-centred education makes the difference between the sectors, explained David Brazier, Head of St James Senior Boys’ School.

“Fundamentally, parents want the very best for their children. They are prepared to finance a private education, which often means significant sacrifice, to achieve this. Independent schools, with smaller class sizes, are able to deliver a bespoke education that challenges and empowers every child to achieve their very best,” said David. 

But, schools can’t afford to be complacent. “The quality of the education we provide, and adapting that education to meet the challenges faced by young people today, will remain the key to the future of our sector,” said Seth Bolderow, Headmaster of Wetherby Senior School.

Wetherby Senior School

Remaining popular in times of economic uncertainty

So, how are independent schools managing to retain their popularity when families’ budgets are increasingly stretched? It’s down to independent schools being able to offer so much more. 

Julian Thomas, Headmaster of Wellington College, asserts that being independent gives schools the “freedom to innovate”. Being able to go beyond the prescribed curriculum means they can offer their pupils activities and experiences simply not available in the state sector. 

He explained how the continued popularity of the independent sector in times of financial uncertainty is mainly due to the quality of education on offer, citing a recent report commissioned by the Independent Schools Council that suggests that attending an independent school adds the equivalent of two years of schooling. 

“This commitment to a truly holistic education is the reason the independent sector in the UK is still regarded as among the finest education providers in the world, and why we remain popular in challenging times,” Julian said.

The high standards of teaching at independent schools is a given, but it’s the sheer amount and range of activities on offer outside the classroom that sets them apart.  Extra-curricular activities and trips are integral to a young person’s development. 

“An excellent and compassionate education can set a young person up for life. A good independent education is less about the ‘old boy network’ as in yesteryear (I can say that as a former state schoolboy myself) and more about the depth of your values and behaviours that flow from them,” added David.

Liz Laybourn, Head of Burgess Hill Girls, said that being able to offer pupil-centred teaching is something that is never going to go out of fashion. “Our mission is to produce determined, resourceful young women who can achieve successful, useful and fulfilled lives in a complex and ever-more competitive world. And that’s always going to be something valued by the families we serve.”

“All parents want to do the very best they can for their children, and I think those fortunate enough to be able to access what the independent sector has to offer do so because they want an education that suits their son or daughter rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” she added. 

St James Senior Boys’ School

Recognising the importance of mental health in schools

Over recent years, school leaders have increasingly become more aware of the importance of looking after the wellbeing and mental health of their students. Seth explained how the awareness of pupils’ mental health needs is a growing trend in the education sector generally.

“I think many in our sector – and not only in our own sector – have distinguished themselves by their recognition of the rising tide of teenage mental health risks, and the work that has been done in developing initiatives to respond to that,” he said.  

The past few years have seen tougher examinations, upheavals in the education system and austerity measures dismantling existing mental health services, and depression, anxiety and conduct disorder are more common than many would like to admit. 

Mental health problems have long been seen as something of a taboo, with many scared to admit struggling with their mental health, but it affects about one in 10 children and young people.

A child’s emotional wellbeing is as important as their physical health, something that is becoming more and more accepted as our understanding of the far-reaching effects of mental health improves. 

“It is an area which we all must dedicate increasing time and thought to,” added Seth.

It’s especially important now; a Care Quality Commission review recently found that children don’t have the access to adequate mental health support in many cases, with more than 40% of the services found to be needing improvement.

St James is one of the schools to have recognised the importance of offering mental health support for pupils and staff. The school has meditation and mindfulness training, which they will be offering to other state-funded schools from January. 

“We have found that the ability to connect to stillness and silence is a very powerful technique for wellbeing and managing one’s energy and character,” said David. 

Burgess Hill Girls

Means-tested bursaries: widening access to an independent education

Widening access to an independent school by providing means-tested bursaries, is becoming a sector-wide priority.

“This has to be the way forward if independent schools are to thrive and survive. We must not become bubbles of privilege,” said Julian.

Liz agreed, “As a sector, we need to continue to do what we have excelled at for so many generations – providing the best education at a price that’s affordable for the broadest range of families.”

There is still a way to go before the independent sector is accessible to all, and many schools are only starting to change things, but the progress already made by the sector is already a “significant achievement,” according to Julian. 

“Widening access is good for the sector, good for the schools themselves and good for the UK,” he added. 

Educational success during change: “a quiet but important achievement”

The last few years have seen several upheavals in the curriculum, the biggest being the recent changes to GCSEs and A-levels: new content, structural changes and a new grading system for examinations. The fact that pupils are continuing to succeed in the midst of all this change is a “quiet but important achievement,” said Seth. “Education excellence is at the root of the support we enjoy, and it is why we all must dedicate ourselves to a continued commitment to the maintenance and enhancement of that.” 

Wellington College

Challenges ahead

It’s clear that two of the main issues that independent schools have to deal with, despite the sector continuing to retain strong support, is the ongoing battle of keeping fees down. Financial stability and affordability are key.

“It is a huge challenge but one that must be met head on with creative thinking,” said Julian. “We must be cautious about the future. There are many challenges ahead, some of which could have a significant impact to the health of the sector.” One of these potential challenges is a potential VAT on school fees, he suggests. “It would have, I believe, far-reaching consequences, not just for the independent sector but for the UK as a whole.”

Liz explained that independent schools need to be able to demonstrate their innovativeness to remain an attractive option in the climate of the economic uncertainty in the face of Brexit. 

“Parents need to be reassured that the money they pay in fees is being spent on the right things,” Liz said, although she isn’t worried about the future of the independent sector. 

“There will always be doom-mongers predicting the demise of the sector, but at Burgess Hill we have been attracting local families who want the best for their daughters since 1906. The school survived world wars and economic collapse during the last century, so we feel we have the resilience to rise to the challenges of the 21st!” 

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