Nicola Huggett – Head, Cheltenham College
Darryl Wideman – Head, Radnor House Twickenham
Alice Lucas – Headmistress, St. Helen’s School
Jonathan Anderson – Headmaster, Merchiston Castle School
Jane Sanchez – Head, Mill Hill School
In a year where the goalposts have shifted so rapidly for students and staff alike, what has been the biggest challenge in keeping your school a happy and successful place?
Nicola Huggett (NH): The key has been thinking ahead, planning very carefully and communicating in a clear, regular and honest way to parents, staff and pupils. We have always focused on the positive aspects of any changes we have had to make – with an openness of dialogue between all of our ‘constituents’ – and made sure we took the time to explain any changes carefully.
It has been wonderful this term to be back to business as normal, but in that, we really have also seen parents, pupils and staff really appreciate aspects of life we used to take for granted. It has been a good reset; we have made some significant changes to policies and processes, thrown out a few sacred cows and become much more innovative.
Darryl Wideman (DW): It’s hard enough to know everything that’s going on when everyone’s in the school, let alone when they’re not! We had everything from poor governmental advice to parents feeling isolated, which meant confusion could easily run riot. Still, by having a common-sense approach and doing things pragmatically, we’ve managed to keep our community achieving and, more importantly, happy.
Alice Lucas (AL): The biggest challenge has been keeping everyone connected – parents, staff and pupils – especially as a relatively new head in post. Primarily, we’ve had to provide reassurance – remotely, most of the time – to all stakeholders when many were especially anxious due to what seemed like constant uncertainty.
Jonathan Anderson (JA): Keeping ahead of the game, staying one step ahead of whatever regulations were coming, and just trying to plot out a course that gave a bit of stability. Much of our time was spent trying to find consistency, and that meant sometimes being a bit cautious and sometimes pushing things a little bit further. Generally speaking, it was about trying to replicate that sense of normality as best we possibly could, even if it was really difficult.
Jane Sanchez (JS): The greatest challenge brought by the pandemic has been the need to develop a high level of agility, responding to the ever-changing landscape of restriction and regulation whilst ensuring continuity of first-rate educational provision.
Do you think any of the adaptations of the past year will prove to have longevity into the future?
NH: Yes, definitely. We have continued to develop our use of digital technologies and the new skillsets that both staff, pupils and parents have acquired have brought some really exciting changes. New options like online parents’ meetings, Teams collaborations, sharing good practice and having face-to-face conversations with parents overseas on Teams, have all really enhanced our communication and led to closer relationships between all those who care for our pupils.
Now we understand how to communicate better we can solve problems more quickly and easily. This has helped us operate more effectively in local partnerships where many of our outreach activities with local schools have moved online and now can also continue to be partly taught that way, which has widened access.
DW: I think we all use Teams and Zoom without thinking now; from everyday meetings to parents’ evenings, which I think will stay on Teams for the foreseeable future. In that sense it’s popular – people can dial in from the office or from home to suit them. Our Parents Association actually get much bigger turnouts on Zoom and people become happier to chip in.
It’s been interesting to see so much more willingness to accept that online learning has a role to play in how we deliver education, but there was still a real euphoria when we swung back into ‘normal’ at the start of term
AL: The strength of the team bonds we’ve formed have been remarkable and much of the ‘tech revolution’ has shown its usefulness. The use of Microsoft Teams as a teaching and learning tool, the upskilling of tech skills amongst staff, and exponential growth in confidence and knowledge of how to use blended learning to maximise children’s progress and deep personalised learning must be part of how we operate going forward.
JA: We already had distance learning systems in place that we could lean on, but this was obviously on a much bigger scale. It’s been interesting to see so much more willingness to accept that online learning has a role to play in how we deliver education, but there was still a real euphoria when we swung back into ‘normal’ at the start of term.
JS: We have developed a flexibility in our boarding provision that we could not previously have imagined, giving boarders the option of remaining on-site over exeats but also during the longer holiday breaks, with appropriate levels of pastoral support and activities.
What have been the biggest ‘wins’ for you this year, in the light of everything you’ve had to deal with?
NH: The increased flexibility in our offering and the openness to changes have been really obvious as we have returned to normal school life again. There is a deeper resilience and a can-do attitude that is more entrenched now. We thought before we could probably do whatever we put our mind to; now we know we can.
DW: Our numbers have grown and we’re in a strong position, but perhaps the biggest ‘win’ has been seeing a certain type of parent gain greater faith in what the sector can do. It’s been great to show we have been able to adapt and be flexible when it’s needed. Ultimately, it shows that we put our children first and will do anything to keep their education going.
AL: There’s no question that word of mouth spread far and wide that our remote provision and our overall response to the pandemic – including communication with parents throughout – was outstanding. I think we can be rightly proud of that response, and it has only gone to show what our school can do when the best interests of the children are threatened.
JA: There’s no question that the disruption gave us time to reflect. We had the chance to use the crisis as an opportunity for change in some areas; that’s been very powerful and very positive. We have a team here that are hungry, that won’t always fall back on the status quo, and who want to bring in new ideas and think differently. That must be seen as a huge win.
JS: With the school roll rising this September, we have achieved excellent levels of both retention and recruitment and, most significantly, our boarding numbers have remained stable.
Yet again our sector is being used as a political football; what is your response to the suggestion that imposing VAT on school fees under a particular government would improve the UK education system?
NH: As a sector we appreciate the need to share our own expertise and to learn from the maintained sector. I cannot see how getting rid of one group, keen and eager to work alongside the other, improves education. It would be far better to allow each to co-exist and to insist on the independent sector working in very close association with the state sector.
We have lots to share, lots to learn and lots to contribute to education. The Cheltenham Education Partnership – a group of the 11 secondary schools in Cheltenham, both independent and state – are already providing a fascinating range of activities for local children in all 11 settings. We see this kind of collaboration as sector-leading and hope that many other areas will develop similar ‘partnerships of equals’ as we have.
DW: It’s not an easy situation. The reality is that VAT on school fees isn’t going to raise very much money anyway. The only people it’ll hurt are parents and children, and there are far more important things for governments to be doing than trying to ‘score points’ with us in the centre.
AL: Put simply, I feel that it would cost the government more than they would gain from revenue should such a policy be enacted. That seems very hard to justify.
There are far more important things for governments to be doing that trying to ‘score points’ with us in the centre
JA: Obviously we’ve had some experience of this and there’s much schools in Scotland could share with our English counterparts. Ultimately, the scrutiny on how we ‘earn’ our charitable status is no bad thing, but the economics of the situation are clear.
Independent schools contribute hugely to local and national economies. In Edinburgh, for example, independent schools actually contribute more than the hospitality sector. We’re not out of the woods yet, but those sorts of facts can’t be ignored.
JS: Quite apart from the well-argued case made by ISC and BSA, amongst others, relating to the net financial benefit which the independent sector brings to the UK, is the ever-expanding body of evidence of the mutual benefits enjoyed through maintained and independent sector school partnerships. The spirit of sharing best practice and providing mutual support sits more naturally in the context of school-age education than does ideological posturing driven by political motives.
What do you feel might be the biggest areas of change for our sector in the coming year?
NH: There are challenges for our sector politically, economically and educationally. The questions around business rates and VAT are not going away, and – quite rightly – the pressure for environmental sustainability will be heightened this year.
Maintaining viable business operation will be at the top of many agendas. Educationally, there is great pressure coming around grade inflation and how that impacts university entry. Change is a given; it’s how we manage it that matters.
DW: Honestly, after everything we’ve been through, I don’t feel there is great appetite for wide-reaching change, especially given we’re only just starting to see what the fallout from Covid-19 really means – particularly for young people. We do, however, need to get our heads around the impact on mental health as a real priority, so a period of consolidation and making sure our children are well in themselves should be our primary target.
AL: The urgent and significant need for mental health support. We are reconsidering the resource we invest in wellbeing support to ensure that our pastoral care meets the challenges of the young people – and adults – in our community.
We do, however, need to get our heads around the impact on mental health as a real priority, so a period of consolidation and making sure our children are well in themselves should be our primary target
JA: I think there will be a degree of stability, but also some rebuilding and fallout in the next 18 months. Affordability is going to be a challenge that will gradually unravel, especially as the cost of living creeps up. There is still a lot of change on the horizon with pensions, too, and so the trend of mergers and acquisitions we have seen for economic purposes could well continue, or even increase.
JS: Not all schools in the sector have survived the effects of the pandemic well; they may face challenges such as location or over-reliance on certain overseas markets. It may well be that we continue to see further mergers, acquisitions and school closures. Equally, working with, and contributing to, the wider community is an increasingly important priority for us and for many others in the sector.
We have, for example, embarked on an ambitious programme to work with maintained sector schools which do not have a sixth form to promote 16+ bursaries with up to 100% fee remission.
If you could go back to the start of this year and give yourself a piece of advice, what would it be?
NH: Be bold, go with your gut feel, make sure your team work well together, watch out for ‘plan early, plan twice’ (though that ended up being an essential) and we certainly made the right decision to buy a Covid testing machine early on!
DW: Worrying won’t help; it will be alright. Things can often look terrifying, but there is great collective resilience in our school, and genuine communities have the power to come together with incredible strength.
AL: Take a few days holiday from time to time to properly switch off; and definitely before two years of a headship have passed!
JA: I would say – and this is advice I continue to follow – that it will never be that bad. More than anything, keep talking to people because it is amazingly reassuring to know it’s been hard for everyone else – not just you.
JS: Remember how complex the inter-dependencies within a school really are; the matrix which includes governors, staff, parents, alumni and pupils. I am increasingly struck by an appreciation of what a long-term process the recovery will be, and as with most post-traumatic stress, we need to build back gradually, relearning the art of social interaction, listening and never underestimating what we have all been through together.