What makes a great education?

At the HMC Autumn Conference 2018, Shaun Fenton, HMC Chair and Headmaster of Reigate Grammar School, detailed the ingredients of a great education

In a great school, happy, healthy and high-achieving children enjoy their school days, make lifelong friendships and secure lifetime memories. They leave with qualifications that open doors of opportunity but, more importantly, with qualities of character that mean they are ready and able to make the world a better place. 

If we could bottle that, we would do a great service to the children in our care. Whilst this is impossible, Geoff Barton (General Secretary, ASCL) and I thought we would try to at least distil the essence of what makes a world-class education.

We started by chairing a symposium with those representing the school community, including the British Youth Council (Anna Barker), the National Governors Association (Emma Knights), the New Education Union (Ken Jones), and Parentkind (Michelle Wildman). It was exciting to be reminded that we all hold shared values and have a common understanding.

Great teachers can help young people draw their moral compass

This is what we agreed were the ingredients of a great education:


We value most the education that is a wonderment and fun.


Nurturing an inquiring mind is one of the most important jobs of a teacher. Whether it’s science, humanities or anything else, the most important thing is to ignite a love of learning for life.

Good mental health

This is the bedrock of a happy life and necessary to learn to the best of one’s ability. Schools are increasingly focused on developing children’s mental health toolkit, their personal capacity to make good decisions and navigate life’s twists and turns.


We must not forget that a bedrock of knowledge enriches life, promotes understanding and helps gain the qualifications necessary for young people to progress and be economically independent.

Physical health and happiness

A community that nurtures a sense of safety and ensures their children are healthy, get enough sleep and can face the world with optimism.

Focus and aspiration

This is particularly pressing given the smash-and-grab raid on young people’s attention by the technology giants who spend many millions perfecting how to tempt them away from more mundane matters such as homework. Young people are far in advance of adults in their knowledge of technology and they need to be empowered to be in control of their own tech-journey.


The ability to think and express ourselves creatively is likely to trump the ability to memorise facts. I still believe that, in the AI revolution happening around us, the sparks of genuine human creativity will become increasingly important.

Moral and ethical purpose

Great teachers can help young people draw their moral compass. Schools can create a personal and communal sense of a moral purpose, which creates good citizens who are hungry for truth, offended by injustice and determined to secure improvement through change.

Flexibility and agility

We know young people will have a portfolio of jobs in the future and will be required to deal with machines which can outpace and outwit them. Adaptability will be a core skill.

Emotional literacy

Understanding relationships, and friendships in particular, is often hard-learned in school. Experts tell us that dealing with machine intelligence will demand that we discover what it truly means to be human and being emotionally aware could be an increasingly valued skill.

With these shared priorities, schools can help children travel the path from knowledge to understanding to wisdom – and do so with more purpose than previous generations. Many of us will remember our school song: at Reigate Grammar School it is To Be a Pilgrim. As students graduate from RGS, I commission them to go on as pilgrims, people on a special journey with good purpose, to make the world a better place.

Coming together with those who truly understand school and school children was genuinely inspiring, as was the outcome. We offer it as a starting point for other rich conversations.

We do so with the knowledge that leading independent schools are constantly ready and willing to work collaboratively to promote those elements which make a truly great education – but which stubbornly refuse to be captured in a spreadsheet or clipboard.

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