Improving access in education

Attendees at the Independent Schools Conference in London came together to share best practice for a better educational experience for everyone

The Independent Schools Conference held its event on 28 November 2019 at the QEII Centre in London, with an impressive lineup of speakers and topics ranging from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme to improving access to private schools for disadvantaged children.

Firstly, Ucas’ chief technology officer, Aaron Powell, talked attendees through the data from the organisation’s end-of-cycle report.

The report suggests now is a good time to apply for university, with students having more chance of receiving an offer of a place at university than ever before. In 2019, 97.8% of UK 18-year-olds applying through the Ucas main scheme received at least one offer. It’s a new high – 0.2% higher than the previous year.

This is, Ucas says, partly due to declining numbers of UK 18-year-olds – which are expected to fall to their lowest point in 2020. However, the population of 18-year-olds is expected to grow again from 2021, which is why the report says, “Now may be the best time ever to apply to higher education.”

As independent schools continue to face criticism from some for ‘elitism’, a talk on improving access for disadvantaged children drew in the numbers. The panel consisted of Tom Arbuthnott, deputy head (partnerships) at Eton College, Dr. Katy Ricks, chief master at King Edward’s School Birmingham and Patrick Derham, headmaster of Westminster School.

Ricks says they achieve improved access at her school through offering assisted places, broad partnership activity with 400 primary schools across Birmingham and by being part of the Foundation of the Schools of King Edward VI – a charitable institution that operates two independent schools, five state schools and one academy.

Eton College, where 90 boys currently pay no fees at all, recently launched a full bursary – the Orwell Award – for boys who have spent years 9, 10 and 11 in a UK state school.

Ucas’ chief technology officer Aaron Powell reveals this year’s university statistics.

Arbuthnott says they recently received 148 applicants, with the shortlist being made the week before the conference.

“We are increasingly keen that the experience of coming to boarding school should be transformative.

“We want their five years or two years to really make a material difference to their education, their prospects and what happens afterwards,” says Arbuthnott.

Derham, a trustee of Royal SpringBoard, says: “I think it’s incumbent on all of us who work in the independent sector to ensure that the pupils recognise that with good fortune comes responsibility to give back.”

I think it’s incumbent on all of us who work in the independent sector to ensure that the pupils recognise that with good fortune comes responsibility to give back

Westminster School’s free school – Harris Westminster Sixth Form – was set up with the goal of increasing the rate of entry to top universities among students from areas of socio-economic deprivation. Derham says the idea is to “replicate Westminster education, free of charge”.

The school also runs two academic enrichment programmes – Platform and Platform Plus – for year 5 and year 10 students in maintained schools. Successful applicants take part in a one-year programme of free Saturday morning sessions on everything from physics to history in order to “allow their academic potential to flourish”.

Derham says: “I think we have an opportunity to prove that we can really contribute to social mobility in the true sense of the word, but it’s not going to be easy. Don’t just do things because you’re levelling out the playing field. That’s great, but you have got to work out the way in which it does positively impact on life chances.”

Lastly, Yes We Can Clinics, aimed at 13–23-year-olds with psychological problems, addictions and behavioural problems, were present at the conference. Piet Jansen, director of international relations, made a compelling case for heads to have “courageous conversations”.

While he recognises that teachers are educators, not parents, he is keen for the clinic to visit schools to help teachers with how to talk to students about their mental health.


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