Yesterday I attended HMC’s Spring Conference at The British Library in London, which took as its focus partnership and collaboration between the state and independent sectors. The audience of independent headteachers and guests from across the world of education (though no journalists – it was a closed session) heard from a number of speakers, including the current Chair of HMC and head of Reigate Grammar School, Shaun Fenton, the HMC Executive Director, Mike Buchanan, and a range of panels. These panels covered the issues of how to build productive partnerships across a specific geographical region (Cheltenham was chosen as an example); finding, caring for and funding places for disadvantaged children (in conjunction with the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation); collaborating at regional and national level (for example with respect to sports provision, and training Maths and Physics teachers); and measuring impact, rather than simply partnership activity. In the final session of the day, the Chief Executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, interviewed the authors of ‘Engines of Privilege: Britain’s private school problem’, David Kynaston and Francis Green, who then took questions from the audience. I tweeted throughout the day: check my timeline (@jillberry102) or follow #HMCConf2019 to find out more.
The day was a fascinating exploration of how the independent sector is responding to pressure to be, as Kynaston and Green put it “less socially exclusive and more socially diverse”. And the sector IS responding. The website Schools Together provides examples of the projects and partnership arrangements currently in existence (and growing daily). I would suggest that this drive is not simply in response to recent coercion and current threats of financial penalties; throughout my time as a deputy and then a head within the independent sector, I have seen how momentum to work with, learn from and contribute to our state sector colleagues has grown in frequency, strength and impact. Following my own education entirely within the state sector, I taught in four state schools before moving into the independent sector at deputy head level. I have written about this here. What I learnt from working across the sectors was that there is far more that binds us than divides us. We all have something to gain from collaboration and building mutual respect and understanding. We all care about the pupils in our schools and want to do the best for them, and this involves ensuring they have the opportunity to make connections beyond their own school community.
Independent sector pupils are not all wealthy and privileged. Many parents make significant sacrifices to meet the fee commitment because they believe their children will thrive in the school they choose, and many families benefit from financial support schemes. Most independent schools are not wealthy themselves; the majority rely on fee income and do not have endowments bringing in additional funds, and any modest surplus they generate is reinvested in the education of their pupils, not rewarding shareholders. Most schools within the Independent Schools Council are not selective, so this is not about ‘creaming off’ the most able.
All schools want their students to have a sense of social responsibility and of the wider world and not to grow up in a narrow, protected bubble. In my experience, parents want that too. David Goodhew, the Head of Latymer Upper School, talked of the parent who asked him: “If I send my son to your school, will I still like him when he’s 18 years old?”
Schools such as Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) in Dulwich, and Bolton School are absolutely committed to raising funds to ensure that what they have to offer is open to as many students as possible, whatever their families’ financial circumstances, and they are working with SpringBoard to identify and connect with young people in need. These schools are not alone. Sally Anne Huang, the head of JAGS, reiterated the sector’s offer to provide up to 10,000 places for disadvantaged students each year (very much in line with what Kynaston and Green are recommending) if the government will agree to working with the sector on this. Much impressive work is taking place, and all this is at a time when the financial pressure on independent schools is considerable, for example the hike to schools’ contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme is a significant challenge to independent schools which, unlike their state sector colleagues, are receiving no government support in the first year of the increase. Independent schools during my time as a head showed a real commitment to trying to control fee increases. This is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in the current economic climate.
David Kynaston asked: Is there a generation of new independent school heads, themselves not necessarily independently educated, who are determined to move towards greater social diversity in their schools rather than maintaining the status quo? I would suggest the answer is yes. Certainly at the end of the conference when Matthew Taylor asked whether we felt the sector needed no change, moderate change or radical change in order to resist social exclusivity, the vast majority of the audience expressed a desire for radical change. But in order for this to happen, we need respect and understanding, not prejudice and antagonism. Anything or anyone that tries to pit the sectors against each other, and politicians who use the current tension to score political points, will be counterproductive and will mean that we are less likely to make further progress. Those who wish to abolish the independent sector cannot have thought through the practical and economic repercussions of absorbing around 650,000 additional pupils into over-stretched state schools. The independent sector is not the enemy. As Shaun Fenton said, “This needs to be a shared journey about helping children, rather than scoring political points.”
The girls in the school where I was a head were successful because we built their confidence and they responded positively to an ethos where it was not just acceptable, but desirable, to behave well, try hard and aim high. This was supported by the autonomy I had as a school leader to make decisions which worked for my context and this particular community – because my school was independent (a much more meaningful adjective than ‘private’) . The girls did not succeed because they were privileged, pampered, protected – though they were cared for, encouraged and constructively challenged. I was proud of them and proud of what we achieved with and through them.
There are excellent schools across both sectors, and every school has something to give and something to gain from partnership and collaboration. Speak to any teacher or leader in either sector who has experience of such partnership, and they do not need convincing. Can we celebrate the positive, look for opportunities to do more, and work to understand and respect each other rather than to fall back on uninformed assumptions and preconceptions?
Photo credit: The cover of ‘Engines of Privilege: Britain’s private school problem’, by Francis Green and David Kynaston, Bloomsbury (2019)