Independent heads call for new era of collaboration with state schools

A top head teacher at an elite private school is calling for greater awareness of the role that private schools can play in helping to “heal” the “multiple wounds” inflicted on society by the coronavirus crisis.

Sally-Anne Huang, the first female High Master of the prestigious St Paul’s School in London, will this week address the Autumn Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the body that represents leaders from 296 independent schools.

At the virtual event, she will criticise the tendency to cast private schools as “society’s villains”, which she condemns as “stereotyping and prejudice”.

Her address includes a description of her own experience of going to work to improve the lives of young people, which extends to youngsters in other educational settings beyond her own school, and expresses bafflement as to why she and people in similar roles are often judged “more harshly than those in other professions”.

Antagonism towards private schools is, in her view, a “well-worn type of stereotyping and prejudice” that her colleagues are used to, which has worsened recently as society has become more polarised.

Acknowledging the difference between the budgets of elite private schools and those of state schools, Huang believes that independent schools are in fact “willing and able to help with the problem”.

Pressing for collaboration and inclusivity instead of division at a time of crisis, she will say that independent school leaders share the same desire for more timely announcements, clarity and consistency over exam results as their state-school counterparts, as well as identical concerns for the mental health of pupils and teachers.

Independent schools will, she will say, continue to improve access, and “rather than being the ivory tower we can sometimes be perceived to be – we are instead an essential life raft for liberal education, civilised debate about the future, respect for expertise and for the development of sport and of the arts”.

Her sentiments were echoed by Rosie McColl, head teacher of the independent Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) school, Brighton Girls.

Writing in the Telegraph, McColl suggests that the COVID-19 crisis may have a beneficial effect, helping education to get out of the “160-year rut” it has been in, and pushing children of multiple skills and talents through the same “qualifications factory”.

She says that it requires skills such as “creativity, resilience, confidence and communication”, which advance young people in the workplace far more than a batch of GCSEs and A-levels.

Her school had already been collaborating with a local primary school on a STEM project before the lockdown was enforced.

When Brighton Girls was required to shift to online remote learning, the move helped her and her staff realise that they could collaborate with far more than one establishment by sharing its remote package with dozens of other local state schools.

Her school also delivered online lessons in science and English to state primary schools across Brighton and provided an online book club for their pupils during the summer.

Urging new collaborations in the wake of COVID-19, she concludes: “Let’s not waste time on divisions and old scores between the independent and the state sector but instead explore how we can create new partnerships and mine new opportunities from this once-in-a-generation moment.”

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