2020 in independent education

In our end of year review of the sector, four independent school heads share how the “ultimate disrupter” has brought school communities closer together


independent education
Shaun Fenton, headmaster, Reigate Grammar School


independent education
Vicky Bingham, headmistress, South Hampstead High School


independent education
Rosie McColl, head, Brighton Girls


independent education
Peter Clague, headmaster, Bromsgrove School


Q. It’s been an extraordinary year in education due to Covid-19.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced as a headteacher?

Shaun Fenton (SF): Pastoral care is always our priority and we have found new ways to support children and their families, often using new technology, to overcome challenges of lockdown. The return to school after lockdown reminded us, however, that personal contact and human kindness cannot be replaced with a call, email or video chat. It has been so good to see the children back in school, to hear them laughing and learning.

The use of online learning means students have made good progress but the biggest challenge has been to continue looking after the children and adults in our care, and to retain and strengthen our ethos of community and relationships. I have been so proud of the way the children have supported each other and the many ways that teachers have gone the extra mile to support every child.

Vicky Bingham (VB): There have been many ‘firsts’ this year and tackling each one for the first time has been a challenge. There has been a lot of new information for heads to digest. Words that did not feature regularly in our 2019 vocabulary were fomite, algorithm, fogging, Zoom and CAGs.

I know more about epidemics, insurance and subject-access requests than I ever wanted to know, but I am glad I know a lot more about Microsoft Teams.

Rosie McColl (RM): Managing the emotions and expectations of staff, students and parents while simultaneously having to adjust to new ways of working was very demanding in the early stages of the pandemic.

Like many people, my days were dominated by online meetings. But this did mean that my laptop became a window into other worlds. People’s personal battles became more visible. A meeting with a colleague being interrupted by a small child; a student struggling at home; an introvert enjoying the relative paradise of remote learning and reflecting on their normal school experience – all these battles were suddenly brought into sharp relief.

Keeping morale high and managing staff workload has been an ongoing challenge since September. While students returned to relative normality in September, there is one part of the school community unable to reap the benefits of a bubble-existence – our brilliant teaching and support staff. Seeing the staff room devoid of furniture, and largely silent but for a few fleeting conversations over a distance of two metres, is a daily reminder of what we have (temporarily) lost.

Peter Clague (PC): Preserving the fabric of Bromsgrove’s culture so that it is not permanently creased by the pandemic is my main focus. Operational changes are relatively easy; sanitiser stations, one-way systems, altered dining rosters, in-house sport carousels. What is challenging is preventing those restrictions from eroding the weave and weft of who we are as a school.

Being forced to operate in horizontal year group bubbles, for example, which strikes at the heart of the supportive society of a vertical house. Or cancelling the moments of shared experience, the assemblies and chapel services that subtly bind us as a community each week. The longer we are forced to deviate from our familiar paths, the harder it may be to find them again. There should be a law against using the phrase ‘new normal’. The old normal served us perfectly well for 500 years and as soon as we can reinstate it, we will.

Q. Do you think there are any positives that have come out of the pandemic for independent schools?

SF: There have been many positive developments in recent times. Our #wecare campaign has been a huge positive. We made and distributed thousands of PPE items, helped the foodbank, lent minibuses, supported primary schools, stayed open for key worker children and more. I am so proud of the way the community pulled together.

We identified over 2,000 elderly or otherwise vulnerable community members and reached out offering practical support such as shopping or collecting a prescription, and also offered company and friendship at the times of greatest isolation. It has been great to see the Reigatian community living up to our stated values. At the worst of times we see the best of people.

Another positive has been the innovation. For instance, we couldn’t put on our first drama production so turned it into a feature film, hired a cinema and had a full red-carpet premiere! We couldn’t do fixtures against other schools so we ran a series of high-profile coaching masterclasses run by international sportsmen and women. We didn’t just pretend we were awaiting fixtures to restart, we did something different and better. From online school trips to summer school lessons, from virtual school music concerts to online parents’ evenings there has been innovation across the school community.

The smooth integration of technology into our learning has been a huge positive. We will always want to be relationship-focused rather than tech-reliant but, when needs must, our technology has kept us in touch, kept friends talking, kept learning moving forward and helped students continue to feel part of the Reigatian community.

VB: The pandemic has brought heads closer together; we have leant on each other for support and advice. Geographical barriers have come down in our relationships with partner schools in the state sector – that is a huge opportunity. At South Hampstead we have taught students online as near as Wembley and as far afield as Kolkata.

The pandemic has brought heads closer together; we have leant on each other for support and advice – Vicky Bingham

The independent sector has financial challenges ahead and offering value for money is more important than ever. Schools which have demonstrated they can adapt efficiently and creatively to a challenge as great as a pandemic will continue to attract a lot of interest from parents.

In a global pandemic and recession, independent schools can demonstrate their value to wider society. Associations like the HMC are campaigning ferociously for justice in this year’s exam series for all candidates. Many independent schools are engaged in addressing the academic deficit caused by lockdown by offering online tutoring and revision sessions for partner schools. We are conscious of the demands on teachers’ time in state partner schools and we want to do what we can to help.

RM: Change happens slowly in schools; it has to be gentle and coaxed out of people. But the pandemic forced us to make decisions and be brave. It has been the ultimate disrupter. When you look at The World Economic Forum report, Schools of the Future: Defining New Models of Education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (published Jan 2020), the list of contents and learning experiences proposed look remarkably similar to what happened when schools closed.

Because of this crisis we were forced to bring the future into the present. Remote learning, peer-to-peer learning and teaching, more bespoke independent learning – all these became a reality as we went into lockdown. Covid-19 focused our minds, fuelled our creativity and fast-tracked our tech capability hugely – we have run virtual trips to Pompeii and Antarctica. Now teachers are asking, “Where next?” and exploring the world through VR.

PC: There is no doubt that the experience has drawn us closer. In fact, Bromsgrove has become a nexus for our families in aspects of the pandemic’s impact well beyond the education of their children. The existential threat to the school prompted our community to rally and the outpouring of gratitude for what we share was heartening.

The challenges have also been a very real opportunity to lift the ideals of resilience, kindness and tenacity out of lofty sermons and assemblies, and put them into everyday action.

independent education
South Hampstead High School have been able to teach students online all over the world during the pandemic

Q. How difficult is it to keep fees affordable in the current climate and how is your school approaching this?

SF: We are fortunate that, whilst there are inflationary pressures, our finances are healthy and so we do not need disproportionate fee increases.

VB: South Hampstead is part of the GDST and, quite rightly, our fees were frozen for the academic year. Reducing fee inflation is a constant challenge for independent schools. There is a perception that we cost a lot because we spend too much on equestrian centres. Very few independent schools have stables, but we do spend more on people. That is a great message because it is the people in our schools who drive innovation and excellence, and share it with communities beyond our gates.

Unleashing staff creativity by managing workload effectively will be key to financial sustainability. There may be some difficult conversations for heads to have with parents, as there can be a mismatch between what parents want and what is best for education.

RM: We are lucky to be part of the GDST family of 25 schools which is carefully managed to ensure it is sustainable for current and future generations. During the summer term, we were able to offer a reduction on school fees; the level of reduction depended on the age and stage of the girls and how much parental supervision they needed.

The GDST also took the decision to freeze fees for the 2020–21 academic year, and enhanced its hardship assistance funding, to support families in extreme financial difficulty and enable their children to continue their education.

PC: Significant discounts at every year level during the closure, plus a generous hardship fund, are now being repaid with strong loyalty from all of our families. Combined with disciplined cost control and prudent pause in development projects, they have kept us on an even keel. At the heart of that financial miracle lies a brilliant bursar.

independent education
Reigate Grammar School’s Shaun Fenton (centre) says they will relaunch their personal development programmes in 2021

Q. What were your school’s main priorities in 2020 and will these change next year?

SF: A fistful of grades will open the doors of opportunity but qualities of character make the biggest difference. That is at the heart of the RGS experience. One of the opportunities for 2021 is to relaunch our personal development programmes.

Returning to school and making the most of opportunities for character development will be the priority for the year ahead – we want young people to grow up into the best version of themselves, with lifetime memories and lifelong friendships. We want them ready to leave as happy and successful young adults.

VB: One priority at South Hampstead in 2020 was to use our beautiful new performing arts space as a launch pad for creativity. During the pandemic we have taken concerts, debating, art exhibitions and a radio station online or live streamed from our hall so creativity continues apace.

We made sustainability a cornerstone of our strategy in 2020 and were delighted to scoop two awards for ‘Greenest School’ this autumn. Our big priority for this year was to launch our 150th anniversary bursary campaign. Accessibility, diversity and community are more important than ever, so we will not be changing course. We have a busy social action programme this year, and we are working with one of our state partner schools to help plug the gap caused by lockdown.

RM: I took up the role as headteacher of Brighton Girls in January 2020, so had just 10 weeks before everything changed. Going into 2020, we had planned to review and reaffirm the school values, to engage parents and members of the community in the debate around future skills, to forge new partnerships with local primary schools, and to create some unique external partnerships within the city of Brighton and Hove. We achieved all these things, and more.

Rather than being slowed down, we have seen a multiplier effect. During the pandemic, we delivered online lessons in English and science to children in primary schools across the city; not only have these
have continued since we returned to school in September, but they have diversified and increased in number.

PC: I’m sure I put that strategic plan somewhere… Covid-19 has eclipsed all prior planning, and we have moved to a ‘survive, revive, thrive’ model. Without wishing to tempt fate, we are currently focused upon revival.

independent education
The GDST decided to freeze fees for the 2020–21 academic year. Pictured: Brighton Girls sixth form

Q. What do you foresee will be the key talking points in the sector in 2021?

SF: 2021 will see talk of vaccines, GCSE and A-level exam grades, university admissions, return to sport, teacher recruitment and reform of assessment. However, the priority must always be pastoral care. We must always focus on nurturing a community where students leap out of bed looking forward to a day of adventure ahead.

VB: Exams will be a big focus and I am sure much attention will be paid to the gap between state and independent schools. It is a scandal that laptops did not reach the children who needed them and many independent schools are now doing their best to help address that need. There is an exciting opportunity which I hope will occupy more of our headspace soon, and that is the chance to reshape assessment in KS4 completely. Diversity and accessibility will, quite rightly, continue to take centre stage.

RM: As we return to school, wanting (and desperately needing) to prioritise student wellbeing, and seeing pupils’ anxiety rise with every mention in the press of contingency plans for the summer exam season, surely the most urgent talking point is how we use the experience of the pandemic to bring about a change in the assessment system.

You might also like: Leveraging pandemic fallout through marketing and public relations

1 Comment
  • Dick Mowbray

    ‘Survive, revive and thrive’! What a brilliant read! The way in which independent education rides the new challenge and then integrates the new with the old, when anything like normal life returns, is a blueprint for all businesses. The challenge is formidable, but I am sure many schools have had to have a long, hard look at themselves, and they will be leaner, fitter, and better for the experience. All these people in their own way are an absolute inspiration. Though recently retired, I find myself surprisingly nostalgic. Good luck to everyone in the independent sector. You will certainly know who your friends are at the end of this. Regards to Rosie, a former colleague. X

Leave a Reply

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?

Would you like to share this report with your friends and colleagues?

You may enter up to three email addresses below to share this report