The biggest challenges facing independent schools this year

There are many challenges facing independent schools in 2021, but what do current heads see on the horizon?

We asked four heads for one of the biggest challenges facing independent schools in 2021. Here’s what they said…


Liz Elam, principal, Abbey College Manchester


“For me, one of the biggest challenges for this year is having to make rapid decisions on operating the college, often without much information or clarification from the government. In these uncertain times, the environment in which we function is constantly changing and the rules in which we can operate are constantly under review and change at very short notice (as I type, the return to school date is moving to March).

“The welfare of students and staff is paramount and ensuring a positive, healthy work/life balance for all is key, while also ensuring that the students are continuing to learn, and we are in a position to ensure that their centre-assessed grades are a reflection of their true abilities. As a boarding school, this does not just affect lessons, but also the wellbeing and safety of the students who are living with us and the staff caring for them.”


Jon Perriss, headmaster, Langley School


“The issue in 2021 is that the sector is being challenged on multiple fronts at the same time. The wider context of societal health, alongside familial pressures for staff, pupils and parents have meant that there are threats from many angles. Everyone has a different interpretation of the pandemic, and thus the decisions that one makes have equal measures of criticism and praise.

“Teachers have been under enormous scrutiny but have delivered brilliantly in tough circumstances. The challenge for us all is to reflect with perspective, not criticise through the 20/20 lens of hindsight, and ensure that every child’s education matters every day.”


Jo Anderson, principal, Bury Grammar Schools


“Our biggest challenge is also an exciting opportunity for a renaissance in education. ‘We must not allow kids to be defined by the pandemic,’ said Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England. ‘They should be defined by the opportunities we put in place for them.’ Schools need to work together to put opportunities in place for pupils which bridge inequalities and prepare for a brighter future.

“It is time to reinforce independent-state school partnerships, share expertise, review our assessment system, revitalise our use of technology and give our young people the moral and emotional support to avoid them becoming disillusioned with a world in which the goalposts have moved. What do we want society to be like in the future? I would like to see a national debate take place to ensure today’s education system supports the aspirations, needs and talents of our young people with kindness and vigour.”


Ben Vessey, headmaster, Canford School


“It would be easy to see only negatives in Covid-19’s legacy. Yet as educators we should be welcoming the innovations it has afforded us. Now we are all more familiar with Zoom/Teams, the world is truly accessible. Our pupils have enjoyed discussions with explorers, politicians, writers, activists, musicians and more from across the globe; virtual open days have kept future families in touch while unable to visit; and OCs and parents have reconnected.

“Digital is a complement, but it is not the panacea. Those physical, live ‘moments in time’ – the thrill of sports matches, the quick-fire repartee of a debate, the hum of the orchestra’s rehearsal – and the laughter filling our schools in normal times is irreplaceable. ‘Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.’ A saying particularly relevant right now. We should not bury the past but embrace opportunities for the future which are endless, and exciting.”

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