End of year report

As the school year closes, we ask key figures in the independent sector to reflect on 2014-15 and consider future prospects

Who’s who

Wendy Griffiths

Job title: Chair, Boarding Schools’ Association

Career highlights: Chair of BSA (2014-15), head, Tudor Hall (2004 to present), director of studies, St Catherine’s School, Bramley (2000-2003), head of sixth form, Tormead School (1997-2000).

Robin Fletcher

Job title: National director, Boarding Schools’ Association

Career highlights: National director, BSA (2014-), communications and performance director, Aster Group (2011-14), owner Reflex training and communications (2003-11), communications director and change manager, Trinity Mirror Regionals (2001-3), editor/journalist, Trinity Mirror, UPN, Emap and Birmingham Post & Mail (1984-2001).

Alun Jones

Job title: President, Girls’ Schools Association; principal, St Gabriel’s, Newbury

Career highlights: Remaining committed to single-gender education for girls culminating in headship and president of GSA

David Hanson

Job title: Chief executive, Independent Association of Prep Schools

Career highlights: Throughout my career I have met many extraordinary, inspiring professionals as a teacher, inspector, heads mentor and director in state schools, academies and independent schools.

Julie Robinson

Job title: General secretary, Independent Schools Council

Career highlights: Working in IAPS prep schools was uplifting, inspiring and great fun. I always felt privileged to be the head at both of the prep schools I led and I still love to attend school prize-givings to be part of the celebration of these wonderful schools and young people.

John Claughton

Job title: Chief master, King Edward’s School, Birmingham

Career highlights: I was told by my former employers that I was too volatile to be a housemaster and not the right stuff to be a head. I have enjoyed proving them both right and wrong.

Richard Harman

Job title: Chair, Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference; headmaster, Uppingham School    

What have been the most positive developments within the independent education sector during this academic year?

Wendy Griffiths: Green shoots of recovery in boarding numbers in the latest ISC census.

Robin Fletcher: It’s been very encouraging to see boarding numbers in independent schools rise for the second year running to over 70,000, the first time above this figure for a decade. It shows great quality and resilience in the sector and the effect of a growing economy.

Alun Jones: The growth in the belief amongst the discerning majority that the sector should speak with one unified voice and the continuing growth of collaboration between all involved in educating children.

David Hanson: A growing awareness that the long-term wellbeing of our pupils and society is as important as academic success.

Julie Robinson: ISC research results demonstrate that our schools have weathered the recession well and continue to achieve impressive academic results whilst supporting development of the whole young person. We lead the way with sport, creative and dramatic arts and there is an increasing inclination for all sectors to work together, contributing to the professional voice in education.

John Claughton: I don’t see the independent sector doing anything that is all that fascinating at the moment. The good news for schools in the Midlands and the north is that the economy has grown in confidence and that means there are more people who can send their children to independent schools.

Richard Harman: The increased pupil numbers from the ISC census are especially welcome, as green shoots emerge and our schools’ consistent performance in all aspects of education is clear. Partnerships with state schools or their communities are up again, with nearly all HMC schools taking part. This shows there is quiet, unsung work happening every day to benefit all pupils. Fee assistance has also increased and I’m sure this trend will continue. HMC has started an important initiative to ensure young people receive more joined-up learning and support as they transition from school to university. Meanwhile, our first sports survey showed our schools providing an average of five to six hours of high-quality sport a week, which helps balanced and healthy lifestyles. HMCTT is an excellent new initiative to address the vital issue of teacher supply and recruitment into the sector.

What have been the major causes for concern?

WG: Ongoing negative reporting in the media that boarding is not ‘normal’ and can adversely affect pupils’ development.

RF: Affordability of boarding for many UK parents remains a cause for concern and one the sector needs to tackle.

AJ: The continuing frustrations with politicians’ outdated understanding of our sector.

JR: The continued stereotyping by the media and other organisations when referring to our sector. Independent schools are very diverse. We offer day and boarding, single sex and coed, prep and senior. More than half are small local schools loved in their communities as well, of course, as the bigger more well-known schools. We also offer specialist schools for children with special educational needs and for music and dance. We also have a diverse pupil body – our schools gave fee assistance valued at £700 million to pupils last year and 29 percent of pupils are from a minority ethnic background.

JC: The main cause for concern is the gap between north and south. Whereas the ‘golden south’ worries about having too many oligarchs on the books, schools beyond Oxford have to fight very hard to main quantity and quality of pupils. Since we do IB , this doesn’t worry me, but the confusion about A levels must be a problem. I remain amazed that schools continue to put up with it.

RH: Everyone is concerned that so many young people in all schools are finding life in modern Britain such a struggle. At the same time, an HMC survey has shown our pastoral care has increased hugely in the past five years so we are responding positively and proactively to our pupils’ needs. There remains, of course, more to do. Media stereotyping still defines us by privilege rather than excellence, with our many successes often spun as negatives. We are presented as a key cause of the UK’s social ills, rather than part of the solution. Our exam system remains a worry. Re-mark rates are still unacceptably high and the ‘enquiries about results’ process is still inadequate and lacks fairness and transparency. Ofqual needs to take more action more urgently and we are watching closely.

L-R: Julie Robinson, Robin Fletcher and Alun Jones

What were your personal highlights of the year?

WG: Leading a successful BSA conference for heads in May. We had many inspirational speakers, but hearing Shabana Basij-Rasikh of SOLA in Afghanistan speak at the dinner at the Imperial War Museum and colleagues rushing forward to offer support was undoubtedly very special.

RF: Joining a great team at BSA; representing a sector full of brilliant schools and talented staff delivering fantastic outcomes for children; rolling out The Boarding Orchard in the UK, Switzerland and US and hearing it’s about to be launched in Australia; watching Ed Coetzer from Lord Wandsworth College becoming the first winner of the new BSA Stephen Winkley Boarding Achievement Award; hearing Shabana Basij-Rasikh of SOLA in Afghanistan speak so movingly at our annual heads’ conference in London and proudly making her school an honorary member of BSA.

AJ: Receiving such positive feedback that my comments in the media on behalf of GSA were being well received by parents and the sector.

DH: Our charity trust made its first grants to our pupil access scheme, allowing children from poorer backgrounds access to our schools.

JR: Moving to London for this job and meeting some interesting and impressive people.

JC: Last summer’s summer concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall where our retiring head of drama and head of the orchestra danced on stage with an old boy who is a professional ballroom dancer.

RH: I enjoyed launching my chairmanship at HMC’s annual conference in Wales. Also co-chairing our London Spring Briefing with Sir Bob Burgess to mark the start of the first ‘Transitions 16-21’ partnership with university leaders. As headmaster of Uppingham I’m excited to be hosting the first HMC committee meeting at my school since the inaugural one was chaired here by my great predecessor Edward Thring in 1869. HMC is coming home. Witnessing the energy, talent and commitment of heads and pupils as I have travelled all around the UK to so many great schools.

And lowpoints?

WG: The ongoing revelations of historical abuse cases linked to our schools.

RF: Managing DfE consultations on new the inspection framework and boarding standards at next to no notice over Christmas; failing to persuade (but we keep trying) the Home Office that international boarding students should not be treated as potential illegal immigrants.

AJ: It’s all relative! 

DH: I am a relentlessly positive person, but the negative portrait of our sector by some commentators is irritating.

JR: No lows! It has been an exciting year.

JC: Having a stroke.

Did you welcome the outcome of the general election?

WG: I am not convinced that the new government has the independent sector to the fore in its thinking, but it is a huge relief not to be facing possible reversal of AS changes and suggested compulsory partnerships between all independent schools and the maintained sector.

RF: As schools’ minister Lord Nash is a known supporter of expanding boarding school places to vulnerable children as an alternative to the care system. It is encouraging he is still in place and we can continue to work with the DfE on this.

AJ: Yes, very much so.

DH: It was a very interesting result. I was pleased that it was possible to form a government quickly so the country could get back to business as usual.

JR: We were ready to work with the administration following any outcome. The main changes have been a loss of David Laws and the independent schools portfolio moving to Nick Gibb. We take a long-term view and aim to work with policy influencers to achieve the best possible outcomes for our schools.

JC: Yes, for economic reasons.

RH: HMC is non-party political and has worked well with all parties. However, stability is usually better than uncertainty and we now need the pace of change to slow down. The Conservatives’ promises of raising standards and more autonomy for heads was obviously more attractive to the electorate than tinkering with independent school charitable status and worrying about a relatively small number of unqualified teachers.

Did you welcome the re-appointment of Nicky Morgan?

WG: Yes, she seems to have a measured approach which we need at this time. We are in a phase of significant change in terms of public examinations and I am optimistic that she will allow us time to implement and evaluate.

RF: After the turmoil of the Govian revolution, Nicky Morgan’s quieter focus on standards is welcoming. It is also pleasing that Labour’s proposed partnership standard for independent schools, with the unhelpful threat around business rate relief, is no longer a distraction hanging over the sector.

AJ: On the whole. I believe she has the wisdom to listen to the common sense spoken by ASCL, school leaders and ISC, who ultimately want the very best opportunities for children.

DH: I welcome the continuity in the re-appointment of ministers, which helps in our relationship with DfE and government.

JR: We wanted stability and welcome Nicky Morgan’s promise to tackle workload and reduce bureaucracy.

JC: I don’t care, but why doesn’t some secretary for education pay real attention to creating a different way of constructing the nation’s curriculum?

RH: She is very able and represents much needed consistency. She has demonstrated she understands the value of letting teachers teach, as well as the need to moderate the pace of change and allow reforms to bed in.

L-R: David Hanson, Wendy Griffiths, Richard Harman, John Claughton

What one academic reform could the new government bring in which would most benefit the sector?

WG: Reform which recognises the huge potential advantages of supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged young people to access a boarding environment. The support of charities such as RNCF and Buttle UK in association with BSA schools allows a number of young people to do just this every year but we could do so much more.

RF: Less a reform, more the timing of reforms. If reforms can be introduced at the same time each year, instead of haphazard and piecemeal, that would be helpful.

AJ: To provide financial assistance to pupils who cannot afford the education we offer. That would make the greatest academic difference and promote social mobility.

DH: That the profession should determine the curriculum and assessment arrangements for schools. It would be unthinkable for the minister for health to tell surgeons how to fix a broken leg.

JR: iGCSEs should be part of the performance tables. They are demanding exams and it is ridiculous that they are being excluded.

JC: It won’t happen, but a move towards state-funding for pupils in independent schools. The creation of a non-political body to oversee the curriculum, in accordance with the Royal Society’s recommendations.

RH: A sensible inspection regime that balances necessary regulatory compliance (consistently applied, not gold plated) with a real focus on school improvement, how pupils learn and what makes for excellent teaching, but that’s a lot to ask, I know.

Were there any aspects of the ISC annual census findings which surprised you?

WG: The lowest average overall fee increase since 1994 was good to hear. We are all aware of the challenge of affordability and are working hard to keep costs down.
RF: Seeing boarding numbers rise was of course no surprise at all!

AJ: No.

DH: The increase in pupil numbers is very positive and indicates a strong future for our sector post financial crisis. I knew that we would see a rise in pupil numbers, but I was surprised that the rise was as strong as it was, the largest since the economic crisis in 2008. In hindsight, I don’t know why this surprised me because our schools have adapted very well to economic pressures over the last seven years and parents have repeatedly demonstrated that their children’s education is not among things they were prepared to sacrifice in times of hardship.

JR: We were delighted to find uplifts in the fortunes of many rural schools despite the harsh economic conditions of recent years.

JC: It surprised me that we celebrated growing numbers in the sector when we all know that growth is not the fate of all independent schools.

RH: No, because we had predicted that pupil numbers would grow as the economy recovers. I’m particularly pleased to see recovery in the west and north. Fee increases are low considering rising cost pressures and this is, of course, something to watch in the future.

Has your own job got easier or harder?


WG: I thought it would get easier, but I am still waiting for that to happen!

RF: It gets busier by the day, but compared to soldiers in war zones and nurses in hospitals, it’s obviously easier than lots of roles.

AJ: Our role is much more diverse now than ever. However, I have always been a huge advocate of distributed leadership and my executive and senior teams play such a vital role in my school.

DH: The education sector as a whole is in a constant state of flux and my job is no different. I would not say it’s got any easier or harder in the last year, but it is always interesting.

JR: The responsibility of headship is enormous and little could rival that. My current role is broad and involves coordinating ISC’s work for seven member associations as well as four affiliate associations. That can be complex at times!

JC: I don’t know.

RH: This year, it’s fair to say harder, given the HMC chairmanship on top of the ‘day job’, although it has been a hugely enjoyable challenge and very rewarding. As far as the usual issues arising from running a 24/7 boarding school, parental requirements and the curse of the digital/online world is concerned – no. Those things have remained demanding … but enjoyable. Since I moved 30 years ago from publishing into teaching, I have never had one day at work when I have been bored!

Is digital technology being used to its full potential in classrooms?

WG: Increasingly so: the last five years has seen a step change in the willingness of teachers to make use of it as well as an expansion of the type of technologies being used to support teaching and learning. We now have a generation of teachers who have grown up with technology and they see it as an obvious tool for use in the classroom and momentum is building accordingly.

RF: I see a lot of technology on my visits to schools and sense there is a good mix between digital/traditional approaches.

AJ: Use is still too variable, often as a direct result of funding and training. We have prioritised this at St Gabriel’s, especially in our junior school, and there are some exciting things happening in our classrooms.

JR: It’s important that technology is used genuinely to enhance learning and not merely as a gimmick.

JC: No, but we are on the case. I remain attached to the notion that teaching depends above all on human beings and the relation between them.

RH: There’s no simple answer to that. Pockets of great practice exist in HMC schools, such as shared resources on iTunes, the use of multimedia online resources for classroom enrichment and discussion, flipped learning and so forth. But it’s as much about how pupils are taught to think as about whiz-bang technology in classrooms or bringing devices into school per se. There needs to be a blend and I doubt if inspirational teachers will ever be replaced by machines; the best ones integrate technology into their work.

Should the state and private sectors work more closely together?

WG: The ISC census showed that 93 percent of schools are involved in state school partnerships and/or work in the community. We are all committed to sharing best practice and resources.

RF: Definitely. They both have an enormous amount to learn from each other. Eton sponsoring Holyport College last year was a great example of partnership.

AJ: Absolutely! Although there is already a great deal of collaboration between the sectors, I am a huge advocate of partnership and work incredibly closely with a local convertor academy.

DH: The sectors should always be looking to find ways to benefit from each other. Our schools have some wonderful partnerships with their state counterparts that are leading to advantages on both sides, but more can always be done. It’s so important to maintain these relationships, not only because they are mutually beneficial in educational terms but because schools are so often central to their communities.

JR: Of course we should continue collaborate and 93 percent of our schools already do work in partnership with their local state schools and communities. Partnership projects and links must develop naturally through individual relationships between school leaders and staff in mutually beneficial ways, linking schools and communities. It makes sense to work together, sharing good practice.

JC: Of course they should and there are lots of ways to do it. We work with 170 different junior schools with 10,000 junior school kids in a year in perhaps 30 different activities.

RH: Undoubtedly this will benefit both parties. The fact that nearly all HMC schools are in different partnerships already tells us there is huge appetite and that learning that must be captured and used to inform the next phase. We need now to build on that huge variety of work, which of course has to be relevant and wanted by all concerned. I believe this is part of our moral purpose, to share best practice, expertise and innovation for the benefit of all.

What are the key challenges that lie ahead in the sector over the next academic year?

WG: Ensuring the communication of the positive boarding messages via the media and sustaining the green shoots of recovery in boarding numbers

RF: Within schools, affordability, investing in facilities, maintaining and growing boarding numbers and embedding curriculum change. Within the boarding sector, ensuring the positive message of boarding remains strong as the focus on legacy issues continues.

AJ: Communicating the significant advantages of the education and opportunities an independent education offers; affordability; managing examination reform.

JR: Recruitment of good teachers in the context of falling trainee numbers; changes to the inspection framework and campaigning for a reduction in the pace of change of regulation in our sector; as ever, working with officials to minimise the potential for negative consequences of regulatory change.

JC: Affordability and accessibility are crucial to us. The key challenge for the independent sector is to create and convey a moral purpose.

RH: Affordability: keeping fee rises low at a time of rising costs whilst also building bursary funds to widen access. Recruitment: there is a national crisis of teacher supply, especially in some core subjects, and we must continue to address this problem, for example through HMCTT. Managing curriculum change: as new GCSEs start being taught and linear A levels come in, we will need to help pupils and parents navigate the rapids and ensure our teachers are prepared. Perceptions: we will need to keep promoting the real contribution our sector makes to the overall education system. Sadly, some negative stories from the past, such as distressing historic abuse cases, are likely to continue to emerge and the misery suffered by past victims must and will be acknowledged. However, the present-day reality of our schools is so positive that there is plenty to celebrate.

Complete the following sentence: I am proud to work within the independent education sector because …

WG: It is the centre of excellence in education today.

RF: It is one of the brightest jewels in the UK crown.

AJ: We genuinely care for the development of the whole child, their wellbeing as well as their academic and extra-curricular lives.

DH: Our schools are the best in the world and we are always striving to do better and help more children reach their full potential. In short, it is an inspiring sector in which to work.

JR: Our schools demonstrate again and again the results of excellent teaching by committed professionals. They offer a breadth of educational and personal development opportunity that serves society in nurturing tomorrow’s citizens.

JC: I am not sure that I am proud to work in the independent sector. I am proud to work at King Edward’s because 25% of our boys are on assisted places and that means we can change lives, not reinforce privilege.

RH: It is full of talented, imaginative, creative and energetic people and its schools are among the best in the world.

Boarding Schools’ Association www.boarding.org.uk

Girls’ Schools Association https://gsa.uk.com

Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference www.hmc.org.uk

Independent Association of Prep Schools https://iaps.uk

Independent Schools Council www.isc.co.uk

King Edward’s School, Birmingham www.kes.org.uk

Uppingham School www.uppingham.co.uk    

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