2015 was a year in which the independent sector thrived. Its schools enrolled record numbers of students, whilst continuing to exemplify pedagogic innovation – despite media ferment and post-electoral regime change. Some of the sector’s leading figures spoke with IE to examine its implications.
Clockwise from top left: Alun Jones (AJ) President of the Girls’ Schools Association, Richard Harman (RH) Headmaster of Uppingham School and vice-chairman of HMC, Paul Norton (PN) Principal of Kings Monkton School, Robin Fletcher (RF) National director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, Barnaby Lenon (BL) Chairman of the Independent Schools Council
What do you think are some of the sector’s greatest achievements this year?
RF: The most important development for the boarding sector this year was the rise in boarding numbers for the second year running. For the first time in 11 years, the number of boarding students in the UK topped 70,000.
AJ: What has pleased me in 2015 has been the way in which the independent sector has responded well to queries about the extent of our partnership work. The breadth of partnerships that exist between independent and state schools is staggering, but for the simple reason that they are grass-roots, bottom-up projects, it has been difficult for those not involved to appreciate the sheer scale and impact. Almost all – 99.4 percent – GSA schools are involved in partnerships with state schools or the wider community.
RH: Whilst the evidence points to confidence seeping back into the market, regional disparities are still stark; life remains much more of a struggle for those independent schools outside the “city state” of Greater London and the South East. But if HMC schools continue to show the adaptability that comes with independence, demonstrate outstanding pupil attainment and believe in a truly holistic, liberal educational ethos, this may well turn out to be a golden era.
BL: Despite occasionally misleading reporting of results and some problems with the Cambridge International Examinations grading of English iGCSE papers, our schools once again excelled in exams at both GCSE and A-level. We were delighted a third of our GCSE entries received an A* grade whilst one in 14 of our A-level students achieved three A*s.
Why do you think the sector considers to enjoy such strong support?
RF: The rise in boarding numbers is proof that parents increasingly recognise that, for the right child, boarding offers fantastic opportunities and a great educational experience.
PN: I think one of the most positive developments for us in 2015 was having the opportunity to continue offering a selection of examination boards for our children – instead of being straight jacketed to the WJEC, as the state sector has had to be.
RH: HMC schools perform brilliantly. We have also worked hard to build trust and a positive reputation. Thanks to some excellent sustained groundwork, the voice of leading independent schools is being heard much more clearly than before in the media and (usually behind the scenes) by policy makers. We are being listened to on important issues such as exam marking, mental health, sport and pupils’ transition to university life. We must continue, however, to challenge lazy stereotypes about the sector and to speak up positively on behalf of all pupils in all schools; taking a lead involves considering the bigger picture.
What challenges emerged over the past year, and how has the sector responded to these?
BL: Being a general election year, the sector was prepared for change. Six months on from the election of a new Conservative government, we feel there is a promising sense of working together and education secretary Nicky Morgan seems to understand that recent changes need time to bed in, which is helpful – although there have been plenty of safeguarding changes to cope with. To allow all within the sector to better manage policy changes, we would prefer them to be implemented only in September and not at various different points in the year.
The new academic year has seen overhauled syllabuses for GCSE, AS-level and A-level. GCSEs will prove more demanding and accompanied by a new grading scale which will differentiate more at the top end, whilst the A-level syllabus will now act as a better preparation for university.
RF: One of the main reasons for the BSA to exist is to support staff to increase standards across the boarding sector. Last year boarding staff across the country attended a record number of BSA training courses on topics including safeguarding, CPD, the BSA professional development certificate course accredited by Roehampton University, as well as other pastoral-related courses – a testament to how seriously the boarding community views best practice.
AJ: 2015 has been a year of immense change. Not only have schools been preparing for and then, in September, implementing the teaching of the first of the reformed examination subjects, they have been inundated with a raft of constantly changing legislation.
We completely agree with the need for robust legislation that keeps children safe and gives everyone clear parameters. However, the sheer volume of legislative change – plus revision upon revision only weeks later – has been untenable. Schools cannot keep up with a level of legislative change which demonstrates a misunderstanding of how schools work. The impact on workloads is massive, resulting in schools trying to implement new legislation at the very point in the school year when they should be focused on teaching.
PN: It is vital for independent schools like ours to offer pupils access to the best possible courses and remain at the cutting edge of education, and so we are continually challenged to update our programmes and tailor our curriculum accordingly. Crucial to this progressive thinking is our work in developing partnerships with outside agencies. Over the past year we have seen the introduction of programming into computer science and the development of courses such as music technology so that our pupils are armed with the skills necessary to compete in rapidly changing industries such as multimedia and technology.
RH: After the general election, we saw continuity in policy direction and personnel at the DfE. This was welcome. But with a fragmented state system and some distinctly mixed signals about, among other things, expansion of grammar schools, some of the political picture remains a little cloudy. The recent rumblings in the House of Lords about charitable status, whilst apparently based on incomplete information, shows we need to be clearer about the wide-ranging public benefit activities which already take place. In HMC’s case, 99.7 percent of our schools are involved in partnerships with other schools and the community, and we work hard on a range of issues to benefit all pupils.
Robin Fletcher at BSA’s Boarding Orchard initiative
What types of partnerships has the sector engaged in during the last year and do you perceive any further opportunities for collaboration?
RF: Recent initiatives within the boarding sector include the Boarding Orchard, which aims to be the largest orchard, by a distance, in the UK and involves boarding schools joining it by planting fruit trees in their grounds. The trees symbolise the ‘tree of knowledge’ and demonstrate each school’s commitment to growth and caring for the environment.
AJ: There has been much in the news this year about poor exam marking. It’s disappointing that this still doesn’t seem to have been got right, but we have to acknowledge that, with so many working teachers also being employed as markers, this is a problem for the whole sector and we have to work together before we can see real improvement.
RH: HMC schools run some truly innovative and wide-ranging partnerships including those in sport, arts and STEM subjects. At the same time, teacher training initiatives such as HMCTT have been very timely, addressing the real and present danger of a national teacher recruitment crisis and pioneering a new high-quality route into teaching. We have great expertise to share, and this will have cross-sector benefits over time.
PN: The independent education sector as a whole has experienced some really positive developments over the year, but there is still room for improvement. Despite Kings Monkton’s excellent progress across a range of subject areas, we have experienced difficulties sharing our developments. We have found some sectors to be reluctant to work with the private sector – perhaps it’s the case that state schools view independent schools as a threat.
BL: Outside of the classroom, independent schools continue to build meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships with maintained-sector schools. These partnerships are hugely positive for all involved, so it does remain disappointing that there are some who wish to legislate in this area to force schools into prescribed projects, which are much less likely to succeed.