Sally-Anne Huang is not the image most people have of an independent school head. In fact, the media’s representation of her peers is something the vice-chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) is keen to address.
“I love working within HMC,” Huang says, “and I feel it is contrary to people’s expectations. The HMC heads are a very liberal, forward-thinking group of people so you are always pushing an open door.”
The readiness for change crops up frequently in our interview. At HMC’s most recent conference, the authors of Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, David Kynaston and Francis Green, issued a strong challenge to the sector to increase access to their schools but Huang says: “HMC is open to change, to play its role in the community and is more willing to talk about the issue than the politicians.”
Huang has been headmistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) for nearly four years and her experiences with a transgender student provoked her to raise the issue at an HMC conference, inviting the student to speak in a closed session to heads. Whether engaging with transgender issues or discussing Me Too and equal pay, HMC is, Huang says, “a very supportive place to be”.
There are many reasons the head of JAGS defies stereotypes, but it is her disarmingly forthright answers that makes this obvious. The perception of private schools is something she has no qualms acknowledging. “Earlier this year I went to a London school that identifies lower income families who may want to come to independent schools, and I spoke as vice-chair of HMC about why they may want to apply to our schools. I said to them, ‘you’re not going to meet Boris Johnson, you’ll meet people like me’.
I find the people who choose our schools value education and discussion, and they’re politically and socially aware
“The media seems to want to latch onto the stereotype of a boys boarding school that doesn’t really exist anymore, suggesting that the people with access to those schools – many of whom are wealthy – want to perpetuate that sort of inequality. I find the people who choose our schools value education and discussion, and they’re politically and socially aware.”
The perception of independent schools could, Huang fears, cloud the purpose of contextual offers because “using school type as a divider is a very crude tool”.
“I think the principle of contextual offers – of finding the right match for the right person, looking at them as an individual – that has to be right,” she says. “Those of us who run independent schools, we make contextual offers. If I look at the difficulties a student’s been through, then I will absolutely take that into account.
“People think all rich people go to private school and state schools are full of poor people. The reality is some very wealthy people still send their kids to state school. At JAGS, 16% to 20% of girls are on large bursaries and a number of those are refugee children or single-parent families and that doesn’t change when they come to JAGS.”
Oxbridge, like private schools, is a national media obsession, the headmistress suggests. But just as private schools are not the sole bastions of privilege, neither is Oxbridge the best indicator of a school’s success. “Education suddenly became transactional,” Huang exclaims. “I did classics at university because I was interested in classics! I was lucky in those days because I didn’t have to pay fees but the idea that you value a degree by the amount you earn instead of whether you’re happy with the job you end up in, I think that is quite dangerous.”
That ethos is detrimental to students and teachers, she suggests, and is undermining teacher satisfaction, spurring a retention crisis. “Obviously, pay, conditions and pensions are important, but I think sometimes the reasons people go into teaching are underestimated. Very few people go into teaching to make a lot of money. They go into teaching because they love their subject and they want to spend time improving the life chances of young people.”
The cornerstone of her approach is trust: “We allow teachers to have their own style, preferences and curriculum. It is almost impossible to choose IGCSEs in the state sector but if my department heads think it’s a better curriculum and preparation for A-level, they can choose it. We’re going to need more of that if we are to keep the profession flowering.”
In this regard, independent schools are well-placed to make a national contribution.
“In HMC schools we have school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) partnerships with the state sector,” she explains. HMC schools nurture the teachers and leaders of tomorrow – it is the sort of cooperation that rarely receives media attention. Teachers benefit from the resources independent schools offer, and they gain training, support and the opportunity to “make a few mistakes”. It is an undertaking, Huang feels, the sector “has an obligation to do”.
But amid this good work, financial pressures loom. HMC heads are “planning always” for whatever the secretary of state for education decides next. “I just hope that we don’t get a government that is so keen to be seen to publicly punish us that they lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we need to improve education for everyone in this country.” Maintaining bursaries and “as much open access as we possibly can” is something HMC heads strive towards.
She says the logic of proposals like VAT on school fees is “not going to change things for anybody else”. Instead, the JAGS headmistress says: “What would make things better for other people is if politicians acknowledged just how much it costs to educate a child and give them a fully rounded education with pastoral support in this country. Taxing the independent sector will have a big impact on them but it won’t have a big impact on the state sector.”
HMC’s Autumn Conference will take place from 30 September to 3 October.