Steve Wright asks five key figures from the independent school sector for their thoughts on the year - and the challenges to come
- Antonia Beary, Headmistress, Mayfield School
- Robin Fletcher, National Director, Boarding Schools Associations
- Julian Thomas, Master, Wellington College
- Caroline Jordan, President, Girls’ School Association; Head, Headington School
- Mike Buchanan, Chair, Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), Head, Ashford School
Q. What have been the independent school sector’s greatest achievements this year?
AB: Each independent school will have its own answers. Some – examination results, league table placings – will be obvious but many, just as important, are less so – the child who achieved C grades when predicted Ds and Es; the successful teams, or even the team which lost graciously; the Community Service links with the wider community. Independent schools do not simply define education by the number of A* achieved.
CJ: Independent school alumni made up 28% of Team GB, and 32% of its 135 medallists, at the Rio Olympics. The foundations for these achievements were undoubtedly laid in school, through variety of sporting opportunity, staff encouragement and development of the grit and determination that all top sportspeople require. Elsewhere, every Independent Schools Council school is now involved in partnerships with either local state schools or the wider community. A new website, www.schoolstogether.org, tells the story of our inter-school partnerships.
MB: Results from HMC schools have never been higher. 51% of our pupils achieved A*/A at A-level this year – twice the national figure. At GCSE, the number of A*/A grades awarded to HMC pupils at GCSE was 66% – three times the national average. At the same time, offer rates for our pupils rose for a seventh year in a row and 82% of graduates with firsts or upper-seconds now come from independent schools compared with 73% from state schools.
HMC held its first single-issue conference in April on good mental health in schools. Alongside all this, the money spent by independent schools on bursaries is at an all-time high, with the total value of fee assistance now at £442.5m.
Q. The sector continues to enjoy strong support, even in more challenging financial times. What do you put down this to?
AB: Independent schools pride themselves on smaller class sizes and impressive facilities, but most important is the calibre of their staff – in terms not only of their qualifications, but also their ability to take time with individual students. They get to know pupils individually, then work with them to become the best they can be. This should be the entitlement of every child in every school.
RF: The boarding sector is strong. While numbers declined in the early ’90s, they are rising again and are higher than they were a decade ago. Parents recognise that good, modern boarding will help their children to thrive later in life. Schools are also working to ensure that fees are more affordable.
CJ: Parents want the best for their children and
will move heaven and earth to provide it. That’s
the simple truth.
MB: Our great schools focus on just two key things: maximising the achievements of their pupils – well beyond narrow academic attainment, and developing them as people. Independent research published in 2016 proved that pupils in independent schools throughout their schooling gain the equivalent of two years’ worth of additional education by the time they reach their GCSEs. Crucially, these results were found after prior ability, socioeconomic factors and gender had been taken into account.
51 per cent of our achieved A*/A at A Level this year – twice the national figure
Q. What challenges emerged over the past year, and how has the sector responded?
RF: Brexit is clearly a challenge for boarding schools, because many EU students come to the UK because of freedom of movement. Any future need for EU students to apply for visas to come here might impact on boarding numbers.
In terms of the government’s education proposals, the independent sector of course supports any plans to increase education opportunities for young people, just as many independent schools provide hundreds of places a year for families who cannot afford full fees.
JT: The main challenge I see is financial, with fees now reaching very high levels. Independent schools like ours are increasing our bursary funds significantly in response to this and tying bursaries to scholarships, ensuring that children from ordinary families can be helped.
CJ: The government’s green paper undoubtedly presents challenges, but the independent sector will meet them. A new wave of grammar schools will present our sector with healthy competition, as do the best of the existing state schools. There is no certainty that every child will live within the catchment area of a new grammar school, nor that grammar school status will guarantee a school’s excellence.
MB: The types and range of schools in the state sector are a matter for government. This includes the question of whether to build new state grammar schools. Independent schools will work with and adapt to any structure this or any subsequent government puts in place. We have much common ground.
Q. What do you think of the government’s plans to link independent schools’ charitable status to sponsorship of state schools?
RF: Independent schools are already working closely with state schools and are committed to doing more. But with only 1,500 independent school and 25,000 state schools there are obvious limits to what can be sensibly achieved, and linking this work to charitable status does not seem particularly sensible.
AB: Linking the charitable status of independent schools to their links with state schools is rather a blunt instrument and fixing specific conditions is likely to be difficult and potentially counter-productive, were it to result in the stifling of creative ideas and relationships. Schools are always keen to work together when it is mutually beneficial: we can all learn from each other and many innovative partnerships are already in place, benefiting pupils in both independent and state schools.
JT: We already sponsor our own state academies, Wellington Academy and Wellington Primary Academy. We have found such sponsorship to be enriching and fulfilling and would encourage schools which have the resources to explore this option.
CJ: Sponsorship of state schools is only one of the proposed criteria to retain charitable status; there are a number of others and I cannot see this poses a significant threat to the vast majority of independent schools whose inter-school partnership work is already highly advanced.
MB: The Prime Minister values variety, wants more bursary places in independent schools and wants to see more places in good state schools. So do we. We hope that an increasing number of able children, living in less affluent parts of the country, will attend new schools, opened in no small part through the tremendous dedication of some independent school Heads. In fact, many already do. Thirty-nine HMC schools sponsor or co-sponsor around 137 state schools around the UK.
A new wave of grammar schools will present our sector with healthy competition, as do the best of existing state schools. There is no certainty that every child will live within the catchment area of a grammar school
Q. What challenges and opportunities do you see in the coming months and years?
AB: The challenges are not so much from grammar schools or charitable status, but from the nature of the examination system. Were we to introduce initiatives in schools in the same reckless manner as the government, we would quite rightly be vilified. Teachers have been working like Trojans, planning and assembling schemes of work, while exam board criteria are not finalised until the last minute and some hang in the balance. Ironic when we are trying to teach children to plan, organise and manage their work. Worse still, with constant pressure of quantifying of achievement and financial restrictions on Exam Boards as well as state schools, many subjects appear to be falling by the wayside. Many state schools are scaling down or even axeing creative subjects like art, music and even sport, prey to edicts insisting on more curriculum time being spent on core subjects.
JT: We are a school with a very international outlook and 10% of our pupils come to us from outside the UK. We hope that the terms of Brexit do not hinder the continued flow of children to experience the high quality of education that British schools offer.
CJ: Once again we are facing curriculum change and need to walk alongside parents and employers as the drip feed of grading change affects GCSEs. Several cohorts will have results that are a mix of A*–G and 9–1 grades, and we must explain what these new grades mean as well as managing the strengthening of the pass mark. With our young people increasingly suffering from mental health issues, we also need to support the next generation as they focus on important external examinations while helping them make sensible lifestyle choices.
Q. What partnerships has the sector engaged in recently, and do you perceive further opportunities for collaboration?
RF: The sector engages far more with local schools and communities than the government gives us credit for. Many great examples can be found on the schoolstogether.com website. In addition, the boarding sector has started a project named Boarders for Barnardo’s, through which a wide range of schools support Barnardo’s via fundraising and volunteering.
We have also partnered with The Department for Education to sponsor an information service to help local authorities and charities to place vulnerable children in state and independent boarding schools.
CJ: Leading the Field, a partnership between GSA schools and the Youth Sports Trust, uses sports activity and mentoring to instil confidence and leadership skills in girls. The GSA is also a partner in SeeWomen, a careers partnership with Siemens which involves women engineers and other scientists visiting schools to inspire girls from both GSA and neighbouring state schools to consider a career in science.
MB: The last year has seen an ever-increasing number of long-term, quality partnerships making a real difference to pupils’ lives in both independent and state schools. These include sharing specialist teachers, resources and sports coaches; helping with university applications; holding major events for pupils and communities; offering ourselves as governors; and sharing good practice in wellbeing and pastoral care. Our existing partnerships engage 10,000 state school and 160,000 pupils. We are assessing the impact of all this rich activity and we will use this knowledge to create new projects which will make a lasting difference. The further expansion of subsidised school places is bound to be the right choice for a good many independent schools and coercion is unnecessary and unwise.
Once again we are facing curriculum change and need to walk alongside parents and employers as the drip feed of grading change affects GCSEs
Q. Overall, is the sector in a strong place?
RF: The future is looking bright, with rising numbers and an increased focus on training, safety and child protection. The BSA has launched an extensive marketing campaign to promote boarding to families in the UK.
JT: Our experience is that the demand for high-calibre, independent education has never been higher and we are very optimistic about the sector’s future.
MB: Independent schools have come through the last recession in great shape. There are always pressures in more economically depressed regions but our results, all-round education and comparative prospects for our pupils have never been better. Most importantly, we are able to concentrate exclusively on what is right for the individual child, away from constantly fluctuating political policies and funding crises.