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Leading creative schools

We talk to Mike Buchanan, head of Ashford School, about his new role as HMC Chair and this year's conference

Posted by Stephanie Broad | August 22, 2016 | People, policy, politics

Congratulations on becoming the new HMC chair. What will the role entail over the coming year?

HMC is an influential members’ association made up of 350 Heads of the UK’s and the world’s leading independent schools. Many of the schools are familiar household names but there is huge diversity in the type and ethos of schools which our Heads represent and the encouragingly this diversity is growing as HMC’s membership steadily grows. 

In particular, it’s significant that over one fifth of our members are now women. It’s not yet a high enough proportion so I welcome all efforts to secure diversity in the leadership of our schools to ensure a better gender and ethnic balance.

What all our members have in common is a fierce sense of independence and a fierce sense of a joint endeavour to provide an outstanding education to children from all backgrounds irrespective of their family’s means – £212m is spent by HMC schools every year on means-tested bursaries. 

I wish to make an impact for the benefit of colleagues leading HMC schools, including those that are not in the limelight, and begin to change the sometimes held view amongst policy makers and the public that choosing private education is somehow treacherous. 

What are heads’ biggest concerns this year? 

HMC heads are generally optimistic people so this very much depends on who you talk to and where they are located. 

We are optimistic about the demand for places at our schools. My own school has grown by 100% to over 1,000 children in the midst of the deepest post-war financial crisis the UK has seen and numbers in HMC schools overall have grown by nearly 20% over the last ten years. Nonetheless, there are areas of the UK, typically on an increasing radius from London, which continue to face significant challenges of recruitment.

Overall, we welcome the measures taken to make GCSEs and A-levels more rigorous. We are concerned that the exam system in England is under significant pressure and that this has and may continue to effect the life chances of students in all schools, including HMC schools. Fairness and justice for the individual candidate is a top priority for HMC and its members. This is why we continue to call for reform to the exam appeals process and to insist on the “Rolls Royce” approach of double-blind marking. 

We share the concerns of colleagues who lead state-maintained schools about the ever increasing regulation of and expectations on schools. There are over 400 regulations within the Independent Schools Standards Regulations (ISSRs) which we have to meet daily. Most of these same regulations apply to academies and free schools. We would welcome and support a root and branch review of the regulations so that they focus primarily on safeguarding and require schools to show, by their own means, the quality of the educational experience and outcomes. 

We share the concerns about the future supply of high quality teachers for the nation’s schools. This is why we are engaged in teacher training (HMCTT) and are exploring with the UK government how we can use our expertise in shortage subjects such as MFL and STEM to train more teachers. 

We are optimistic about the impact of our partnerships around the country with maintained schools. Every HMC school is engaged with one or more partners in a huge range of academic and non-academic pursuits. At Ashford School, we use our facilities, expert coaches and transport to teach more than 400 local children to swim each week. 

This year’s HMC conference theme is ‘Leading Creative Schools’. What can delegates expect to take away from the event? 

The annual conference, in Stratford-upon-Avon, is in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company on 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death. 

Events include a private viewing in The Swan Theatre of The Rover by Aphra Behn. It’s described as “an anarchic restoration comedy rich with seduction, intrigue and danger” – some similarities with HMC, I guess.

In other sessions: Will Gompertz, author, Arts Editor of the BBC and former director of Tate Media will help us to think like an artist; Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of the RSC will consider why Shakespeare would relish today’s world; Robert Coe, Professor at Durham University, will tell us what the evidence says works in teaching and learning and Claire Harvey, 2012 and 2016 Paralympian, former prison governor and diversity champion at KPMG will guide us on diversity in our organisations. 

A Universities and Employers panel will look at contemporary issues and a Young, Creative Leaders panel will examine what people half our age are looking for from their professional lives. 

Workshops cover the personal, practical and the provocative. There is a special opportunity for a bespoke RSC workshop on “How to have an impact – practical communications skills involving the Bard” and a Talking Heads session where the mic is open to colleagues to present on anything of their choosing for between 3 – 7 min. Now that will be a challenge for most of us!

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