That was the year that was: 2018 review

It has been an eventful year for the independent education sector, with a whole host of changes and achievements, as our panel of experts recall

Shaun Fenton Headmaster of Reigate Grammar School

Irfan Latif Principal of DLD College London

Oona Carlin Head of Ipswich High School

Donal Brennan Interim Head Teacher of St. Anthony’s School for Girls

Rachel Lewis Senior Consultant at Gabbitas

Sophie Oates Senior Consultant at Gabbitas

What have been the independent school sector’s greatest achievements this year?

Shaun Fenton (SF): The leading independent schools represented by HMC have become a major global success story. Whilst HMC heads lead only around 12% of all the UK independent schools, they account for over half of the schools which have opened international campuses in the last 10 years – and demand for them continues to grow faster than any other part of the sector.

British independent education is a force for good, both at home and abroad. We are promoting knowledge and education rather than prejudice and ignorance, believing in engagement and cooperation rather than distance and suspicion. HMC sister schools are preparing children in those countries to have the values, skills, qualifications and temperament necessary to give them the choice to enter and flourish in the liberal university traditions of the UK, Canada, Australia or the US. Our schools are quietly helping to educate some of the next generation of global thinkers and leaders.

Irfan Latif (IL): The cross-sector partnership work with the state sector in order to provide valuable opportunities and to share best practice has been successful in many schools. Maintaining high standards in a difficult financial climate has been a challenge but the sector still continues to provide an all-round holistic education and to be one of Britain’s best exports – an increase in international students to our schools is testament to this.

Oona Carlin (OC): There are always so many successes from the independent school sector but I would say it is their contribution to the national sporting achievements, as this year we have seen more independent school students participating at a national level in ‘less traditional’ independent school sports. At Ipswich High School we had competitors representing the country in ladies football, stunt kayaking and skiing.

Donal Brennan (DB): The independent school sector has continued to provide excellent educational opportunities to all the children in its schools. These establishments have maintained their high academic standards and breadth of education provision, allowing students to continue to follow carefully and well-thought out, individually managed education plans. This education sector continues to acknowledge the academic strengths of its students, guiding them to develop the confidence and skills necessary to embrace the challenges they face in an increasingly competitive education market.

Rachel Lewis and Sophie Oates (RL and SO): We went to the ISC conference this year and they highlighted very strongly the great links between independent schools and local communities, whether that’s state schools or local charities – and it is increasingly growing. They said schools should big up their relationships with these communities and let local government know in order to make more people aware. This is definitely one of the sector’s greatest achievements this year, they just need to shout about it more.

We are promoting knowledge and education rather than prejudice and ignorance, believing in engagement and cooperation rather than distance and suspicion

What challenges have emerged over the past year and how has the independent school sector responded?

SF: The best schools are always seeking improvement through change, looking to be agile as the world evolves and we prepare children for a world very different to the one of the past. In that context, there are a whole range of challenges or opportunities for schools. These include edtech, new approaches to learning, sports coaching, access to international universities and more. However, for me and many headteachers of leading schools we will always have pastoral care as our first priority, an area where we are constantly challenging ourselves to do more and to do better.

The independent sector has been leading on the issue of mental health and wellbeing for a few years now. We are committed to helping children be happy and healthy – from that foundation they can then go on and change the world. At Reigate Grammar School we are running a Wellbeing Festival involving positive psychology, mindfulness, crochet and sports psychology. It has included workshops or initiatives as diverse as body image, bullying, digital detox and self-esteem.

IL: The threat of VAT on fees was worrying but was thankfully decided against by the Government. Independent schools save the taxpayer £3.5bn every year by providing places for pupils who could otherwise be expected to take up a place in the state-funded sector, so this was a good decision. Also, the possible increase in employers’ pension contributions will be a major challenge which will affect many schools in the sector. Brexit has brought new challenges for independent schools, as international students face uncertainty when looking to study and board here in the UK.

OC: It is really unfortunate that the press is unable to see what benefits an independent school offers to its local economy and community, as well as nationally. Ipswich High School employs more than 130 members of staff, over half of whom are non-teaching staff – it is important that independent schools are successful businesses to ensure the future employment of all staff.

We also try to open our campus as much as possible to the local community – offering opportunities to local state schools to use our resources and benefit from our facilities. Last month we held a fantastic football festival with 170 pupils attending. If independent schools see the sorts of increases in fees and costs which would occur if the proposed changes do happen, then some schools will struggle to manage these increases and keep their schools viable. This will only serve to extend the gap between state and independent education provision as the very elite independent schools will continue to be successful but the more inclusive and more regional independent schools will struggle.

DB: The increasing cost of independent education is the challenge facing independent education. This is prohibiting more middle-income families from being in a position to comfortably offer an independent school education to their children. Schools within the sector have begun to look at putting systems in place to provide fee assistance for students who would not otherwise be able to attend. This initiative ensures that students from all backgrounds continue to have support to access independent education. The schools maintain their status as establishments which are instrumental in supporting positive change in society.

RL and SO: Running costs, competition from grammar schools and lack of affordability continue to be challenges. Only the top schools can attract the greatest academic teachers, so the mid-range sector is suffering from a reduced capacity to recruit strong teachers, particularly in maths and STEM subjects.

Do you have any cost-saving tips for independent schools or ways in which they can generate more income to offset rising costs?

IL: Hiring out the school’s facilities, including boarding, during the holidays is a way of generating additional revenue which will help schools with rising costs. Look at changing utilities like water, gas and electricity (you don’t get any discounts for being loyal!), and of course broadband and phone services. We have also found that a major online retailer can be much cheaper than using established educational suppliers.

OC: Many independent schools have under-used resources which could be let out to gain additional income. Even if a school doesn’t have a swimming pool or a theatre as we do, schools do have a lot of space which is great for meetings, presentations and evening functions. Think ‘outside of the box’ and see if there are any local businesses who might like to use your facilities.

DB: Creativity and accountability is necessary for schools within the sector to maintain the excellent education while being asked to save on costs and continue to offer best value for parents. Schools should communicate more with each other, sharing best practice in teaching and learning. Educational forums and professional development opportunities are planned and hosted by individual schools within a region or suburb, where costs can be shared among a number of schools but ensuring that excellent professional development is presented to many more of their staff.

Independent schools have many well-established alumni networks which are very proactive in supporting the ongoing development of their schools. There are many rewarding initiatives which schools can establish to ensure there is a robust programme in place to generate funding for bursaries, scholarships and building programmes.

RL and SO: We have a lot of involvement with fee-paying parents and can see there needs to be greater affordability for parents and wider access to bursaries. The public education sector was originally set up 600 years ago, with the first schools opening through cathedral schools, in order to educate those who couldn’t afford to be educated. They need to return to that model to a greater extent.

A lot of schools now are beginning to clamp down on money-related scholarships, so they become honorary or give them a £1,000 credit note for piano lessons for example, in an attempt to build up the pot of bursaries. They need to do more of this because there are so many parents dissatisfied with the state sector.

What has the response been like to changes with A-levels and GCSEs; has the sector adapted successfully?

SF: The curriculum changes have come thick and fast in recent years, but the independent sector has adapted well and secured amazing results this summer. Clearly there is still a great deal to do in tweaking the new A-levels and GCSEs but all the signs are that they will end up working well for students.

IL: Results in 2018 were outstanding. Half of A-level entries in the sector were awarded either A* or A which was twice the national average, and one in 13 students achieved three or more A* grades. With the IB, which is mainly offered in the independent sector, over a third of candidates obtained 39 points or more (out of 45). At GCSE, which have also been reformed with the new 9–1 grading system, over 60% of entries were awarded A*/A or 9/8/7, which was three times the national average.

OC: I feel that the changes have been managed very professionally and successfully across the whole education sector. I believe my staff have done a terrific job in communicating the changes successfully to parents and pupils, and that our decision to focus on the quality rather than quantity of GCSE and A-level examinations has paid off. We have some of the strongest GCSE results in Suffolk again this year and all of our Year 13s were accepted into their first-choice universities.

DB: The independent education sector responds well to change and has prepared its students, teachers and parents confidently for developments in GCSE and A-level programmes. The curriculums ensure that the children are being taught to embrace the unexpected, ask the big questions and source the innovative and creative answers with stamina and confidence.

RL and SO: With the opportunity for remarks on coursework before, children had several different opportunities to raise their grades. Now, the pressure is on and some children are responding well to that, especially boys – the national grades for boys have actually gone up. The confusion lies with parents and employers as the education landscape is constantly changing.

Now, the pressure is on and some children are responding well to that, especially boys – the national grades for boys have actually gone up

Is the independent school sector in a strong place?

SF: At a time of crippling political uncertainty, the UK’s great independent schools have remained trusted and consistent, preparing young people brilliantly for the future whilst respecting what has held true in education for hundreds of years. Families around the world view our top independent schools as a gold standard. There is huge and growing demand for British-style independent education, and our strong reputation is a little-known and much-needed asset.

I hope that, whatever our political perspectives, we can pull together and support the strengths of the UK, and our independent schools are one of those strengths. As a country we stand on the brink of great change and our schools have a part to play.

IL: Although the sector is doing all it can to provide the means so that everyone has the opportunity to access an independent education regardless of income, there is still plenty of work to do. Keeping fees down whilst ensuring facilities are maintained and upgraded is always a fine balance, but many schools in the sector are constantly improving – from developing wellbeing centres (like the one here at DLD College London) to five-star boarding accommodation.

Although at times it seems like an arms race with new performing arts centres and sports halls being built by schools, the independent sector continues to go from strength to strength – the facilities are second to none, and the results and opportunities speak for themselves.

OC: Yes, we are in a very strong position. The number of pupils in independent schools has increased by over 20,000 pupils since 2011, and is at an all-time high, according to the ISC Annual Census 2018. The recent report by Oxford Economics, The impact of independent schools on the UK economy, shows that independent

schools directly contribute £6.05bn to the UK GDP and they support over 147,000 jobs. It is important that everyone in the UK understands the financial contribution and the number of jobs which are dependent upon the success of the independent sector schools in the UK.

I believe that my school is in a strong place too. We are at an exciting time in our history as we move towards co-education via the diamond model and we prepare to open our first boarding house in September 2019.

RL and SO: Parts of it are still struggling. We saw so many schools close after the last recession and with Brexit coming along I think some of the smaller prep schools are under real threat. They’re having to expand at the lower level, opening places at reception and nursery. The big public schools are still strong, even though they are changing where they are internationally recruiting.