HMC review: “The political threat is real”

Jo Golding samples the mood of school heads at HMC 150

It was my second time attending the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) Autumn Conference but, this time, I knew there were different conversations to be had.

Whilst challenges are always present in any industry, independent schools have come under fire recently; just one week before the conference, the Labour Party committed to dissolving the independent school sector if it wins power.

Executive director of HMC, Mike Buchanan, said “The political threat is real,” and advised independent schools to build on the partnerships they have with state schools, demonstrating locally and nationally the positive impact they have.

He also reached out to the nearly 300 independent school heads in attendance to ask them what more they’d like HMC to be doing for them, encouraging them to share any concerns they have with the association.

Children should not be treated like guinea pigs – you cannot subject the children of this country to years of shifting sands and uncertainty

Fiona Boulton, chair of HMC and head of Guildford High School, made a passionate opening speech that resulted in a huge round of applause.

She said: “As a child educated by the state in the ’70s, as part of that guinea pig generation for every new idea that could be thrown into the mix, I have strong views on this. And so, let me be quite clear. Children need bedrock, children need stability. Children should not be treated like guinea pigs – you cannot subject the children of this country to years of shifting sands and uncertainty.

“This is a time for inclusion, acceptance, friendship and a time to inspire harmony. We are not, as is often perceived, fighting against each other, we are fighting with each other in the pursuit of fairness and a privileged childhood for all as our goal.”

She revealed results of a poll by ComRes: two thirds (68%) of the public think parents should be able to pay for their children’s education if they can afford it – this includes over half (56%) of Labour voters.

Only one in five (18%) disagreed with the idea.


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Boulton spoke of how proud she was to be chair in the association’s 150th year, as HMC schools continue to produce some of the most able students at universities – HMC schools have educated a third of all doctors.

I particularly liked this comment she made on HMC schools: “We have environments where it is cool to be clever and the norm to be different.”

Do low-cost private schools work?

The current political debate does raise questions about finance, and the rising cost of school fees, and heads heard from University of Buckingham professor James Tooley at the conference, who spoke about the value of low-cost private education.

“Even in the most deprived places in the world, you’ll find low-cost private schools,” Tooley said.

He called it an “extraordinary phenomenon” that there are low-cost private schools in places like Kenya, rural China, India, Lagos and Sierra Leone.

He said children in these schools outperform those in state schools yet the schools are affordable even to those on the poverty breadline.

The school Tooley set up with former principal Chris Gray, The Independent Grammar School: Durham, has yearly fees of £2,995. He said a secondary school model would be more challenging and expensive, but they’ll still be able to do it “for a reasonable sum”. He expects to see the low-cost private education sector growing.

There were also revelations about mental health at the conference, in particular, the rise of ‘sadfishing’ and the rise in support in schools for parents whose children have mental health issues. The conference helped the heads in how to deal with these situations.

Attendees also heard from Professor Robert Plomin about how genotyping (determining differences in genetic make-up by examining DNA) could be used to predict children’s academic ability at birth. An interesting idea and one, Plomin said, that could lead to personalised learning like we’ve never seen.

While there are no quick fixes to current challenges, the conference made it clear that HMC and its schools will continue its important work in delivering high-quality education and putting children first.