Changing education for the better

Shaun Fenton, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), looks at what is in store at this year’s Spring Conference and discusses how we can widen access to great education even more

There is an invisible web binding independent schools to their local communities, and those ties are getting stronger. At the same time, our renewed efforts regionally, nationally and even internationally mean we are able to play our part in improving education for more children, wherever they are taught.

This year’s gathering of heads at the HMC Spring Conference (British Library, 1 May) is aimed at celebrating and encouraging that shared endeavour.

We have much to build on. Every HMC school is involved in a partnership, and many have large programmes helping state schools with academic subjects, sport, music, drama and university. Community activities tend to be highly responsive to local need, including supporting local shops, volunteering and even doing conservation work. The Schools Together website, the national showcase of such involvement, now has just under 4,000 projects listed (www.schoolstogether.org).

These run alongside significant efforts to open our doors to children from all backgrounds; over £1m is spent every day on means-tested bursaries, including many fully funded places paid for not only by endowments and trusts but by imaginative fundraising campaigns. 

Yet there is always more to do. I see extraordinary commitment amongst the best HMC schools, which is nothing to do with box-ticking and everything to do with social justice and a deep sense of charitable purpose. Nevertheless, political pressure is mounting and schools who can, should. Clearly, it’s not easy to bring disadvantaged pupils into our schools, or to identify partnerships which will provide real and long-term benefits. The HMC Spring Conference, Partnership and Collaboration in Practice, aims to provide practical help in doing so. 

The one-day membership conference will explore how to: 

● Find, care for and fund means-tested places for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds 

● Organise and run a genuine independent/state school partnership 

● Show impact 

● Develop national collaborations in key areas such as teacher training, sport and wellbeing 

Unsurprisingly, it’s already a sell-out! 

Benenden School pupils run a sport session for children at Benenden Primary School

As educationalists, we like to learn and to challenge our own thinking. With this in mind, the final conference session is a discussion with the authors of Engines of Privilege chaired by Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the RSA and frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. 

The book concludes that the government should help funded places in independent schools as a way of opening up access and truly changing the social mix. 

In this, as in many ways, we have discovered there is more that unites than divides us. We are already working with the DfE to place hugely disadvantaged children and those already in care, via the Boarding Schools Partnership and through the established Springboard programme. 

Our offer of up to 10,000 places at independent schools for lower income families is not far away from their vision, and the authors acknowledge that there is goodwill on our side. Our global perspective helps here; successful public-private partnerships exist in various countries which increase access to excellent fee-paying schools for children from modest backgrounds. Perhaps, post-Brexit, this will be seen to be a compelling idea for those who want greater educational opportunity but also like value for money.

This is just one way in which HMC is already helping to change education for the better, for all children. 

We campaign for fair outcomes in examinations and good mental health, train new teachers, help keep minority subjects alive amidst dwindling state sector numbers and share fantastic resources to help young people make good decisions about their use of technology through our Tech Control campaign. 

I know that independent schools care deeply about all children, wherever they are educated. It comes with the territory of being a teacher. It’s what we do. The ivory towers beloved in popular mythology exist less and less, if at all; rather, we work shoulder-to-shoulder with many brilliant teachers from state schools to give every child the best start in life.

Many people have their own inspiration, which they carry with them through times of challenge. For me it’s Issy, a full bursary student who went from relying on food parcels to getting to Cambridge, working in a refugee camp and powering through the fast-track course at the Civil Service. 

We commission our students as they leave our schools to make the world a better place. We must do the same.


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