ISA Annual Conderence – Chair’s Address

23rd May 2012

Chairs address

Chair John Wood opened ISA’s Annual Conference on Thursday 18 May 2012. Here is the full text of his opening address:

Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.

These are the words of Albert Schweitzer, the 20th century Franco-German medical missionary and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 60 years ago this year.  They seem to me to be a wholly appropriate starting point for our conference this year, with its theme of:


Our role as head teachers is primarily about inspiring others, be they the pupils in our care, our colleagues, our pupils’ parents or other members of our wider school communities.  Even as heads in independent schools we have to do this against a background of what can often seem like ever increasing bureaucracy and interference from those in power nationally.  Indeed, it is difficult to see how the much heralded “bonfire of the quangos” has really assisted us as we continue to strive to provide our pupils with the best possible education to prepare them for the ever changing world of the 21st century.

At our conference this year we have gathered together an inspiring group of speakers who will, I am sure, assist us as we think about how to continue to inspire and develop our schools against the rapidly changing backdrop of national and local educational provision.

We are extremely fortunate in ISA that we have such a wide variety of types of schools in membership, including co-educational and single sex schools, all-through schools and those catering for a limited age, ranging from pre-prep and nurseries to sixth form colleges – with everything in between.  We also have day and boarding schools, performing arts schools and many others specialist schools.  Some of our schools are run as charitable trusts, whilst others are proprietorial schools.  This diversity is one of our Association’s great strengths enabling all of us to learn and be inspired by colleagues who work and lead in sometimes very different circumstances to our own.

As the very youngest children in our care take their first tentative steps along the road of lifelong learning we, in ISA schools, are adept at finding what it is that inspires each individual child and our staff are skilled at adapting what they do to encourage their pupils’ development.    Our parents know that what we are providing is of the highest quality and they wish to work with us to enable their children to grow and develop an understanding of the world around them.

It is good that the government has undertaken a review of the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum, including a dramatic reduction of the learning targets, but I believe there is still far too much prescription.  The EYFS curriculum from September remains inflexible and focused on learning rather than play.  Whilst this may suit some children well it does not cater for the diverse needs of all pupils.  Within ISA we continue to work with the other Heads’ Associations and ISC to lobby the Department for Education to agree to exemption for independent schools from the learning and development requirements of the EYFS regulations and I hope that the recently launched consultation will lead to this happening.  The whole notion of an “independent” school is that it is not constrained by compulsory curricula and one wonders how this ever came to pass in the Early Years stage.

And while we support funding for Early Years education, giving more families access to the best Early Years education for their children and giving those children the best possible start in life, we have to question the approach of some Local Authorities who through a tick-box mentality have forced many independent schools to withdraw from local arrangements. It is simply unfair that in many areas independent schools work in partnership with Local Authorities to provide the best possible outcomes for Early Years education, while elsewhere some Local Authorities seem to be clearly biased against our sector and as a result some children do not have access to the best education available.

Albert Einstein is once reputed to have said:

There are only two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

One of the great pleasures of seeing children grow and prosper is their thirst for knowledge and their wonder as they learn new facts or develop newly discovered skills, be that playing a first note on a musical instrument or making a water filled rocket and then seeing how far it will fly.  Young children, in particular, do see new knowledge and their own understanding as miracles and they have an innate desire to understand the world around them.  They like to learn new things – I remember a few years ago my nephew, who was five at the time, saying to my wife on a day out: “Don’t tell me things I know already!” – what a great maxim that is for life.

It is in that crucial decade or so from the beginning of formal schooling to around the age of 13 or 14 that children are at their most receptive to learning and it is also during this time that we in the independent sector are at our most free from external control and interference, thus enabling our teachers to truly inspire their pupils with teaching tailored to their individual needs and interests.  If we can look back far enough to our own, sadly rather distant school days, I think we will often find that it is at a relatively early age that our own particular passions were awakened.  Certainly in my own case, my lifelong love of mathematics began when I was taught by an inspirational and enthusiastic Year 3 class teacher called Roy Edwards, who later went on to become a personal friend, as well as a university lecturer specialising in the teaching of primary mathematics.

Unfortunately though, once pupils enter the external, and seemingly never ending, trail of examinations, beginning with GCSE and then continuing through to A Level, the way the system has developed makes it increasingly difficult for our teachers, however inspiring they may be, to continue to develop that same sense of wonder and enthusiasm for learning for its own sake.  We and our pupils become sapped by the inevitable need to get the best possible results and this does not lead to either the best teaching, or the best learning.

Ofqual recently commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake research into the views of higher education, schools and employers into the suitability of A Levels.  This makes very interesting reading and, whilst there are a lot of positive comments about the existing system there are also a number of emergent themes which support comments I made earlier in the year.  In particular, many believe that the current system, including the provision of textbooks targeted directly at the examinations, does not encourage or reward students who read widely around the subject.  Consequently universities report that many first year undergraduates do not possess the independent learning skills that successful undergraduates need.

The textbooks have often become focused solely on the tests that they prepare students for and teachers increasingly report that students consequently ask more, and at an earlier stage, about examination technique and what they need to write to gain easy marks.  Sadly our students are increasingly expert at what precisely they need to do to pick up a particular mark on a question, in say A Level History, but less knowledgeable or even interested in history as a discipline and what it teaches us about our world today in the context of the past.

This is all very sad, but I am encouraged by the desire of the Government, and those in authority in the Department for Education and Ofqual, to engage with us in the independent sector, to listen to our views and work with us as changes are proposed.  I hope that this will continue and that the Secretary of State will ensure that he does take heed of the views expressed by us and our colleagues in the state sector.  For example, whilst I certainly welcome the suggestion of an increased involvement of universities in the future development of A Levels, this must not lead to them having too much power or influence.  It is absolutely right that syllabus development and oversight of the structure of qualifications and assessment arrangements should not be the preserve of the Awarding Bodies alone.  However, I would like to see a partnership between universities, those in schools and colleges and also employers’ representatives, who would work with the Awarding Bodies to ensure that A Levels provide the best possible preparation for young people’s future study or employment.

So much has gone wrong with the system over the past few years, at both GCSE and A Level, and I certainly do not feel confident that the Awarding Bodies can rectify the situation without the involvement of others and the oversight of Ofqual, which is already beginning to do a good job in this area.  We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this right and in our sector we have a huge amount of experience and talent to assist in the transformation that is needed.

In some subjects of course our sector is especially successful.  As a mathematician I have been pleased to see the rise nationally in students being entered for the strategically important and vulnerable STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and independent school students do especially well in these subjects – for example in 2010 ISC candidates accounted for 18.5% of entries for science at A Level, but provided 30% of the A and A* grades.  Similarly we remain dominant in Modern Foreign Languages with over two thirds of our students taking at least one language GCSE at the end of Key Stage 4, whereas only 38% of maintained school candidates do so – and this is before you even consider IGCSEs or independent school candidates who take their Modern Foreign Language GCSE early.

These subjects are crucial for the future success of our country and at present our schools are producing more than our fair share of the future engineers and scientists, who will be so vital for the future.  Of course, it is not science alone that is needed and as Sir John Rose, former Chief Executive of one of our most successful, and world leading companies, Rolls Royce said in a talk to the RSA:

“We must stop drawing a false distinction between the creative industries and manufacturing and we must recapture the sense of excitement about science and technology that existed in the past.  There has to be a reason for young people to choose the sciences.”

In our sector we have been extremely successful both at inspiring young people to choose the sciences, but also in encouraging them to combine this with other subjects, such as languages or by developing their extra-curricular interests to enable them to both thrive intellectually and build their confidence in general.

What is needed now is a transfer of this success to a greater breadth of society.  That surely should be the challenge for any government.

So why is the Government so intent on experimenting with academies and free schools, often at very great capital expense?  These remain largely unproven as an engine for change and whilst the Government may like to describe them as “independent” they are not, as the Secretary of State has direct control over them.  The suggestion that we in the independent sector should engage in sponsoring academies is only practical for the largest and best endowed schools.  Even for them this has the potential to divert their attention away from their core task of providing for their own pupils – it is certainly not a practical option for the majority of our schools.

Why not use our expertise in another way?  We have the clear track record of success, not least in the STEM subjects and languages, and we have the manpower and resources to teach more pupils than we do at present.  I do not see the point in opening up untested free schools, when a similar expenditure could be used to fund places for pupils at independent schools.  A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies Report into independent education in Australia and the UK found that in both cases there was a positive effect on progress and success from attending an independent school, but in Australia the percentage of pupils doing so is about 33%, as compared to our own figure of around 7%.  The difference of course is that in Australia independent schools receive a considerable proportion of their income from the state.

There are many different models for how funding could be provided, ranging from what Australia does to the voucher system used in Sweden or providing tax credits equivalent to the cost of a state education.  The fees of many ISA schools are not so far apart from what it costs to educate a pupil in the state sector and our schools offer tremendous value.  Why doesn’t the Government calculate tax credits on the basis of average Local Authority funding and give parents a real choice?  The first real choice they have ever had, and certainly less disruptive locally than a raft of new free schools.

Perhaps you will say; this is just not politically possible here in the UK.  But why not?

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass:

There is no use trying,” said Alice. “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Thank you.