All set to take on the role of Principal at one of Edinburgh’s leading independent schools Lesley Franklin considers the changing education landscape and the challenges and opportunities it brings.
Attainment, mental health and the rise of digital media are some of the key issues she explores, providing insight into a vitally important sector which has a more complex backdrop than ever.
What do you believe are the key challenges and opportunities for Head teachers and senior staff in Scotland over the next five to ten years?
From an education perspective the challenge across Scotland is raising attainment. It has been widely reported that attainment in Scottish schools has declined. In the latest PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment), Scotland is at its lowest position since the survey began in 2000. Also, in the recently published report ‘Quality and Improvement in Scottish Education (QuISE) 2012-2016, the Chief Inspector of Education reports a divide between the independent and state sectors in terms of attainment and achievement. The report has highlighted a real problem in state sector schools, a quarter of which were judged to be either weak or satisfactory. In contrast, in independent schools, learners are ‘generally highly motivated and responsible, with a positive attitude to learning’. Therefore, these reports have produced the evidence, and what senior education staff in Scotland need to do now is work together to address these issues in schools which are not providing high quality education for children in Scotland.
The exams being delivered through SQA also continue to be a challenge. There have been, and continue to be, many changes. In England and Wales there is a greater number of exam bodies, and therefore the competition there may be good for creating high quality exams. The model with SQA may be less complex as they are in charge of all exams, but it does also give them, in essence, a monopoly. This makes it harder to garner change.
Some of the real challenges for head teachers are in the areas of health and well-being of pupils and staff. More so than ever, gaining a sustainable work life balance for staff has become hugely important. There has been a real increase in awareness of mental health issues, which is good. In this area head teachers have a responsibility to both staff and pupils.National funding cuts in child and adolescent mental health services, coupled with increased pressures in terms of exams and social media, means that we have the potential for significant challenges in this area. The desire and pressure for teenagers to portray a perfect lifestyle is a real and present problem.
As a school we are looking at psychology services that we can use to support pupils. It is not always the more extreme and obvious cases that can prove difficult to support. Often it is those on the margins. Schools have such a responsibility in this area as we are typically the first to notice behaviour changes in pupils. It can also bring with it significant liability challenges.
Finally, we have to recognise that social media presents a challenge in how it impacts pupils and staff but on the converse, it also provides opportunity as an interesting and adaptable platform for communication and interaction. We just need to ensure that we are using it well and expanding our capabilities to evolve with it.
Do you see that changes in the political landscape will impact on the education sector in Scotland? If so how could this impact on independent schools compared to state schools?
This is an area of continual change in Scotland, and across the UK. When Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, was made Cabinet Secretary for Education in 2016 he responded very quickly to requests being made by teachers to review SQA unit assessments and other systems. His rapid action showed that he was really listening to those in education and from my perspective that was welcome. However, there is a great deal more that needs to be done.
The question of independence does create a challenge, and also potentially an opportunity. If there is a successful independence referendum at some point in the future it may make a city like Edinburgh more or less attractive for businesses, which would obviously impact positively or negatively on the maintenance of a steady intake of pupils for the independent sector. Similarly, Scotland remaining in the UK could make Edinburgh more prosperous and attractive. There are so many unknowns in this area - it makes it a challenge to plan for the future development of the independent schools’ sector.
Education Scotland has a positive impact in some ways. For example, in Scotland both independent and state schools are inspected by Education Scotland and I do believe this model works better in the creation of a consistent approach to inspection. There has been a lot of work undertaken by the inspectorate to understand the independent school sector and how the different school models compare. This allows for more accurate inspection.
However, as well as inspection, Education Scotland is also in charge of policy creation, and with a responsibility to create policy for schools and then inspect them, this means there is very little outside or independent scrutiny of the system and how it is working overall.
Regardless of what is going on politically what we are absolutely focused on is ensuring our pupils are happy and that our education is of top quality. We want to give pupils the opportunity to go on to any chosen higher education institution and this must be an important part of our role as educators.
With increased regulation across the sector is more expected of school governors in their role, and if so, what benefits and challenges will this bring for schools?
Yes, I think there is more expected from governors these days, particularly in terms of legal responsibilities, liability, complaints, data protection and information sharing. There is also far greater awareness of and focus on accessibility, discrimination and safeguarding. These are areas in which governors may not have had much knowledge in the past, but now there is a far greater level of responsibility that comes with the role. We really do need governors who have the expertise to scrutinise what schools are doing and be able to challenge and provide advice and to leadership teams. It would be a very positive move to have younger and more diverse backgrounds represented on governing boards right across Scotland. This could mean a big shift in culture for a lot of schools.
Will this create a smaller pool of Governor candidates for schools? Would it be helpful if Governors could be remunerated?
I think we need to look at what we can do differently to attract governors across both the independent and state sectors in Scotland. I don’t believe more regulation or responsibility needs to lead to a smaller pool of potential governors, just a different approach.
As far as remuneration goes, I do not think this is realistic, even for the independent sector. When you start introducing remuneration or a salary it becomes an employed job and that is not what the role of a governor is. It would also be impossible for most schools to pay governors as schools in Scotland are not run for profit.
Is there a need for greater diversity at a senior leadership and governor level (not just gender specific) in the sector in Scotland?
Yes, absolutely. It is a very slow area of change across the sector, and not just in Scotland. I think that there are only two other female principals of mixed independent schools in Scotland and nobody from other ethnic groups represented that I am aware of. This is in particularly stark contrast to the very high numbers of female teaching staff across the sector at both independent and state schools.
It seems strange that when I was announced as Principal of Heriot’s that, even in 2017, the fact that I am a woman is one of the key headlines in the media.
Is charitable status a sustainable reality for independent schools in Scotland? What challenges does it bring for the school and board of Governors?
I do think it is sustainable and I believe it really should be. We have charitable status to make sure that the more financially disadvantaged pupils can come to schools like George Heriot’s. That was the founding principle of the school in 17th century. We provide an enormous amount of money to pupils though the Heriot’s Foundation and through bursarial aid and these families’ input to the school is vital. That is why we have charitable status, but we do need to be clear in proving that we are making a difference to the children and making it financially worthwhile for all of these families.
I think that we could do more to support the principles of charitable status and, in turn, address the poverty related attainment gap across Scotland. Targeted philanthropic donations to independent schools, for example, could really help to drive even more access for many a large number of pupils who otherwise could not access such education because of the fees.
In a city such as Edinburgh, where there is a very high percentage of pupils attending independent schools, without charitable status many of these institutions would not be sustainable. The loss of independent schools would lead to far greater overcrowding in the state sector. Independent school parents pay taxes and also pay school fees. Therefore, they help by contributing to state schools and removing their own children from a crowded system.
Ensuring that independent schools remain viable is going to be a key challenge in the future. We need to be thinking individually as schools, as well as collectively in the sector, about how we can maximise the opportunity to generate a greater level of partnerships to allow independent schools to thrive.
Is this status really compatible with an increasing need for commercialisation in the schools’ sector?
Yes I believe it is. Independent schools are not run for profit. We are continually looking at new ways to make the model work better and harder. More sponsorship or partnership opportunities are being explored all the time. That is a positive move for the independent sector to ensure the maintenance of top quality facilities, education and personal development of all pupils and, most importantly, to increase the number from disadvantaged financial backgrounds who can attend.
Are schools and universities working as well together in Scotland as they could be to support young people as they move from secondary into higher education? How can universities learn from schools and vice versa?
I definitely think there is more we could do. Higher Education institutions are looking for a greater degree of independence from young people.
There is some evidence that pupils who have been to independent schools are not always well equipped to cope with living away from home, as they have possibly had more specific attention and input from parents and teachers throughout their school careers. However, the balance is that the input has enabled them to achieve the necessary grades to gain access to the top universities.
One way we address this at Heriot’s is by asking Senior 6 pupils to manage their own timetables. This encourages them to think about studying, planning and managing workloads at university. We have found this is a very good experience for them. We encourage parents to let the puils make decisions and take responsibility. I think both the secondary and higher education sectors would benefit from talking to each other more. I think that if universities spent time speaking more regularly to senior pupils and school staff, sharing more information about what they expect at university and discussing opportunities beyond education, that would be a very positive move. There needs to be more talking and sharing in general. Universities need to look at the level of support and guidance provided to first year students. Are the courses and expectations appropriate and realistic?
Schools need to learn more about how course work is undertaken at universities and encourage pupils to look at, for example, how to construct evidence based essays. This is something that is perhaps not done enough at school. This small example shows that greater communication between schools and universities would lead to better support of pupils as they transition into first year at university.
Do you believe we look to other education systems enough to develop our own in Scotland? Should we be looking more at how education is delivered in other parts of UK or beyond to enhance our own model?
It is always good to look elsewhere. I personally think this is really important in early years education. We look at the Emilio Regio and Montessori education systems at an early age, but less as we progress up the school. There is a huge amount of evidence which shows that by the age of seven, a child’s future is mapped, and we need to ensure that we are doing as much in the early years as we do in secondary stage and higher education.
In Scotland we have such a strong educational history, but in truth, we are not doing well at the moment. We cannot rest on our laurels and look to past glory days. We need to look forward and work out how we address our current issues and failings. I think we do need to look elsewhere as it might help us to understand how we can do better. We have the capacity to change, but we need to have an open, positive mindset. We need to listen, be receptive to those who are in the sector and work out together how to raise Scotland’s educational attainment levels to where they could (and should) be. And hopefully be as good as we used to be.
Looking ahead to your role as Principal at one of Scotland’s leading independent schools what do you see as your key goals in the next five years?
For me there are some absolutely fundamental goals. I want to continue to have a fully occupied school with consistently high academic results. This will, I hope, generate ongoing demand for places across many areas of the city and beyond. A key part of this is also ensuring that we continue to drive the opportunity for disadvantaged children to attend George Heriot’s and remain true to our charitable founding principles.
I want to maintain close links with our alumni and engage with the wider business, cultural and philanthropic communities to generate charitable funds and ensure we sustain a financially viable and truly charitable institution.
If we manage to drive these operational and charitable areas, the ultimate proof of success will be in the ongoing development of happy, confident, independent and caring students who will have bright and opportunity-filled futures ahead of them.
Lesley Franklin will become Principal of George Heriot’s School with effect from January 2018.
Lesley began her Heriot’s career in 1995 and has been Head of the Junior School since 2013. Prior to Heriot’s she worked in state schools in Edinburgh and Berkshire. She is also currently an Associate Assessor for Education Scotland, inspecting schools across the state sector in Scotland.
Lesley attended the University of St Andrews and graduated with an Honours degree in German and gained her teaching qualification from the University of Reading.