2019 in independent education

Five experts from independent education reflect on a significant year and analyse the events that hit the headlines, writes James Higgins


Colin Bell, CEO of COBIS

Rose Hardy, Headmistress of Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls

Ben Evans, Headmaster of Edge Grove School

Suzie Longstaff, Headmistress of Putney High School

Ralph Lucas, Editor-in-chief of The Good Schools Guide

What achievement from the independent education sector has stood out to you this year?

Colin Bell (CB): Continued interest in school partnerships between state and independent sectors for the delivery of multi-school and/or community partnerships. There are many examples of successful models of collaboration across phases and sectors for the benefit of everyone involved to draw on.

Independent schools involved in formal independent/state school partnerships are featured on the formal partnerships page of the Schools Together website. Through social media, schools’ partnership work is celebrated and promoted using the hashtags: #schoolstogether and #powerofpartnerships

Rose Hardy (RH): It’s been really encouraging to see how hard the independent sector is working to find new opportunities to form partnerships with maintained schools. Looking at how we can continue to break down the barriers between state and private education is becoming ever more important. It’s about building bridges, not walls.

We hosted a Year 6 debating competition recently uniting a number of different local schools in the community together and that was great to be part of. All children are equally deserving of opportunities regardless of where they go to school. It’s really about independent schools offering more resources and support, where they can.

The politicisation of young people today has also been an amazing thing to witness. Young people are hugely passionate about climate change and making a real difference to those around them. It’s also great to see the different ways that schools are adapting to harness that passion. In a world often surrounded by negativity, particularly in light of the current economic uncertainty, we have still never lived in more privileged times and it is incredible to see the passion in young people today.

Ben Evans (BE): The independent sector, both prep and senior schools, continue to stand out as centres of academic excellence whilst understanding the need to adapt and develop curriculums and assessment procedures, which prepare pupils properly for the 21st century.

The move away from Common Entrance by some top senior schools has been a big development allowing prep schools greater freedom in delivering exciting and academically challenging courses of study, which also focus on essential skill development rather than just exam preparation. 

It has also been great to see so much collaboration with the state school sector and evidence of really worthwhile and purposeful partnerships benefiting pupils and schools.

Finally, the issue of pupil mental health in schools has really come to the fore and is being tackled in a positive way with excellent staff training and an awareness that this is something that cannot be ignored.

Suzie Longstaff (SL): The increasing number of students educated with bursary support and their many successes. The continued breadth of subjects that are offered – increased STEM provision along with creative subjects, including music and history of art, and continued commitment to extensive modern foreign languages. Increasing collaborations across the educational sector through partnerships (state, independent, senior, junior). That can only be a good thing.

Ralph Lucas (RL): The improvement of recent years in socially responsible and public benefit endeavours seems to continue apace. The days of schools surrounding themselves in impenetrable walls – metaphorical and literal – are no more and it has been heartening to see greater investment going into means-tested fee assistance.

The burgeoning bonds between state and independent schools are to be lauded and there’s no better example of these successful ventures than the exam results and successful Oxbridge applications from schools like Harris Westminster, Holyport College and London Academy of Excellence. These establishments wear their affiliations with independent schools as badges of honours and their pupils undoubtedly benefit from the partnerships.

It may not always feel hugely appreciated at home right now, but UK independent schools maintain an excellent reputation around the world. And, tellingly, Harrow is the latest school to launch itself as an online educator.

Edge Grove’s Ben Evans says the independent sector continues to “prepare pupils properly for the 21st century”

How challenging is the sector at the moment for headteachers and school leaders?

RH: Never before has it been more challenging, and the political climate doesn’t help. There are many misconceptions about the independent school sector, too. Add to that the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and financial challenges that most independent schools and their bursars face today, and it puts a great deal of pressure on the sector as a whole. Then there is the added challenge of pressure on the young and the rise in mental illness.

BE: It is certainly a very challenging time for independent schools. Financial pressures are increasing due to the affordability of fees and falling rolls in some areas of the country and the Teachers’ Pension Scheme combined with the threat of the loss of business rates relief and VAT on school fees. The pressure on schools from exacting and often demanding parents continuing to increase, combined with ever more complex HR issues with staff members, means that school leaders have complex and demanding roles with pressure from a number of different areas. 

RL: Not too bad. Many of the big old schools still attract more applications than they need and there is generally strong demand in and around the M25.

But it is hard for individual schools, particularly the smaller ones, to deal with the sector-wide problem of fees being too high to be afforded by ordinary parents. Schools continue to close or amalgamate and I expect that to be the trend for years to come. There are opportunities for independent schools to pool resources in certain areas which could lead to long-term savings.

Do the recent announcements from the Labour party conference concern you?

CB: The Labour party conference in September passed a motion on the integration of independent schools into the state sector. Specifically, it called for the redistribution of assets held by independent schools and the removal of charitable tax reliefs including those on business rates. Labour had already committed to imposing VAT on school fees and that commitment remains.

The motion is now Labour party policy, though it will need support from the party leadership to form part of an election manifesto or programme for government.

The content of this Labour policy is a concern. However, like all threats, the viability of this policy must be determined and, therefore, the legal and tax implications of Labour’s motion – including charity law, ownership of property, changes to tax treatment and implications for both charitable and proprietorial schools – need to be explored and understood.

RH: Labour shows a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the sector. Independent schools are sharing their resources more than ever today and what independent schools can offer to the wider local community via their resources is invaluable. Announcements like these don’t appear to have a lot of real thought behind them as to the implications, the costs and the impact on the hundreds of thousands of children out there currently in private schools.

If the government wants to nationalise independent schools it will cost a lot of money – money that most would agree is best spent elsewhere.

BE: To hear any political party publicly announce their intention to abolish all independent schools is initially very concerning. However, on deeper consideration, it is clear that this is the aim of a minority of radical left-wing politicians who have all allowed their idealism to cloud any objectivity. It is a good soundbite but in reality, the enormity of educating a further 600,000 pupils in the maintained sector and financial pressures this will bring, does not seem possible.

SL: What stands out for me is the support for the independent sector from across the wide educational landscape.

RL: Bashing independent schools is such an easy political gesture for a prospective Labour government, even more so from a Lib-Lab coalition. It has grown out of a wilful mischaracterisation by campaigners who believe that every school has extraordinary riches and that the sector as a whole is a hotbed of learning for future leaders of the Conservative party.

A moderate attack focusing on VAT on fees and business rates might prove a catalyst for cost reduction and technical innovation – between those two it should be possible to offset the effects. The more radical proposals, which were overwhelmingly approved as Labour policy, involving the tearing up of the Human Rights Act and the right to private property, seem to have been quietly put to one side by the party’s leadership.

The attack has, as a whole though, had the effect of rallying support for independent schools, which may not have been anticipated.

Rose Hardy from Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls says, “It is incredible to see the passion in young people today”

How are schools responding to students’ mental health needs? What’s your take on the solutions schools might offer?

CB: Individual student wellbeing and sector-leading pastoral care clearly runs through independent schools. When considering students’ mental health, physical activity and healthy eating are key components for day pupils and boarders alike.

A good example of this can be seen in the success of Fettes College which was recognised in the Independent School of the Year Awards for its work connected to student wellbeing. I was the lead judge for this award. It was particularly inspiring to learn how the wide range of practical initiatives and policies are brought to life through the direction and leadership of the pupil council and how wellbeing is very much championed by pupils, staff, parents, guardians, governors and the wider Fettes College community.

RH: There are two approaches that schools are currently taking. They are looking at the amount of resources they have available and their counselling provision, and they are also looking at what is being done day-to-day in the classroom to help young people. Schools are beginning to work together to build a case for understanding what is important in life and managing those expectations in the real world.

Mental health is a growing concern for young people today, who are under immense pressure and schools have a duty of care to support them and find new ways to manage these issues, but there is only so much schools can do – we are, after all, not trained mental health experts. More investment and training is needed in this area for sure.

BE: Children’s mental health is a growing issue for schools today and many of the signs are much harder to identify in children than they are in adults. 

Early intervention is therefore vital to ensure children receive the support and the treatment necessary to cope with their illness. As such, it is essential that teachers are properly trained to tune into their pupils’ needs and are equipped to understand and spot the warning signs as early as possible. 

We have to make mental health support more accessible and teachers must not be afraid to raise the issue of childhood mental health in their schools. By removing the stigma and making it something accessible and normal, children will be more open to talking about their problems and more comfortable seeking help from school staff.

Having visible reminders around school that promote positive mental health messages and clearly highlight the steps children can take if they are upset are particularly useful. As are regular assemblies and visiting speakers, all of which will help us to connect with children and signpost them to the available support systems out there. It is also essential that mental health and resilience education is embedded into the curriculum either through PSHE or an internal skills-based programme at school.

As with many schools, at Edge Grove, we are putting increasing measures in place to support our pupils’ mental health. We are fortunate to have a full-time head of wellbeing who is also a trained and experienced coach, able to spot the signs of mental health and support pupils through their difficulties. 

A new wellbeing centre has been established to provide a central hub where pupils and staff can find quietude during their busy days, someone to talk through any issues or somewhere to relax and contemplate.

Looking ahead to 2020, what dominant trends do you think the sector will be discussing?

CB: Communicating the multiple and unquantifiable benefits of the sector and the choice which it offers parents, families and students – who live in the UK and overseas. The sector will also need to discuss continued improvements connected to safeguarding and child protection. We must also increase participation in initial teacher training and our sector’s engagement with edtech. Finally, the establishment of educational operations overseas. Working with associations like COBIS can accelerate and amplify increased opportunities to export the best of British education to the world and to attract the best of the world’s education to Britain. 

RH: It depends on the outcome of the election. Mental health will continue to be a big focus for 2020 as will looking at the transition between A-level education and university life. How do we prepare the young for university and for adulthood? How do we prepare them for the culture of university after leaving sixth-form (particularly when that transition in reality is only a couple of months)? Is university right for everyone? Should we be looking at new avenues and progression for the young? These are also important questions that are being asked.

BE: The financial pressures on schools and the fallout from the general election will continue to be big topics into 2020. Individual schools will continue to assess the affordability of TPS if they haven’t already and I am quite sure a number will go into consultation with their teaching staff.

For prep schools, an alternative to Common Entrance will become an ever-important consideration if one isn’t already in place along with the future of full boarding. Throughout the sector, pupil numbers will be a hot topic (outside London) and balancing the ratio of international pupils with the affordability of fees and the need to provide the best possible teaching resources. The pressures will continue but the sector is strong and will undoubtedly weather this storm as it has others in the past.

SL: All schools will be looking to increase their bursary provision while keeping fees affordable. The political landscape is still uncertain and so will undoubtedly remain discussed, as will potential financial headwinds in an uncertain economic climate.

RL: Fees. Another above-inflation average increase in fees will further the exclusion of middle-class, middle earners from independent schools. Can the sector afford to do without that influential demographic? Time will tell.

Contextual university admissions will be a discussion topic for many – if more places at the UK’s top universities are to be ring-fenced for state-educated children then it stands that the world’s top universities will benefit. Many European universities offer English language courses and the numbers of school leavers heading across the pond continues to rise. But preparing pupils for HE is just part of what will increasingly be expected of schools. Over the next few years these discussions will place a greater emphasis on getting pupils ready for life and careers rather than just university.

Signposting the school road

By Dr Simon Walker, co-founder of STEER

Demonstrating positive impact on students’ mental health is now an educational must. But it doesn’t have to cost the earth.

Think of your school as a kind of road which is training your students to steer their social-emotional journey. Every day, your school activities, relationships and interactions provide opportunities for students to learn to steer. As well as ‘doing’ the activity, help your students reflect on what that activity teaches them emotionally. Exams – a chance to manage pressure. Transition – a chance to take risks. Competitions – a chance to celebrate success and cope with failure.

On this journey, your tutors are driving instructors; they need the ability to help your students reflect on their social-emotional journey as much as their academic progress. Have you given them the tools and training to do so?

Every so often, someone crashes, sometimes unexpectedly; adolescents hide the warning signs. Do you have good mechanisms to hear the pupil voice?

How will you now help them back onto the road? Remember, resilience is not the absence of struggle, but the capacity to overcome setbacks through struggle. Importantly, your goal is not to protect your students from mental health risks; beyond school, there won’t be crash barriers to stop them veering off the road. School is an opportunity to become self-aware – looking back on where we have come from enables us to look ahead to where we are going.

In the past, schools were rewarded for being academic motorways. Now, as much as distance travelled, it is capability to steer which really matters because whilst most employers can get a fast engine graduate, it’s much more costly if he loses a key client contract, goes off on stress or only sticks at the job for six months because he hasn’t developed the skills to steer.

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