As we enter a new decade we are even more aware of how leadership is changing, and particularly how it is evolving in the education sector. To offer a varied perspective and considered forward thinking we were delighted to speak with three senior leaders from a range of UK educational institutions to offer their perspective, ambitions and priorities for the decade ahead: Alex Hems, Head of St George’s School for Girls, Neil Brooks, Head of Cranleigh Prep School, and Mark Taylor, Bursar at King’s School Canterbury.
As we stop and look ahead into the forthcoming decade, can you share what your educational priorities are for your school and young people more broadly?
Neil Brooks: There is a real challenge to prepare students to become the next generation of working adult with the pace of change and societal expectation. Technology develops apace and we have a responsibility as schools to identify what is fleeting and what will represent a fundamental and long-lasting innovation. We must prioritise teaching and nurturing skills which promote civilised behaviours, tolerance, collaboration and self-awareness, as the curriculum will inevitably move away from more traditional retention of facts and figures.
Alex Hems: First and foremost, to ensure my students are equipped to live and work as global citizens, with a full appreciation of both the opportunities that this brings and of their responsibilities in the world. Secondly and essentially, we must seek productive collaboration across all sectors in education so we can raise attainment and break down barriers.
Mark Taylor: From a bursar perspective my priority has to be ensuring the Governors and Executive work effectively together for the good of the children. Balance has to be struck between support and challenge of management/executive. In all we do we need to keep prioritising the development of pupil skills and education that is robustly relevant for working and thriving in the 21st Century.
How do you hope assessments will evolve over the forthcoming decade to ensure they remain relevant?
Neil Brooks: We do have an obsession of measuring a person’s value to humanity through scores, percentages and grades in schools. We need greater diversity in assessment, so we are able to supplement and enrich our understanding of a child’s development way beyond their retention and recall skills, which while important is not enough. We aren’t succeeding in assessing a pupil’s inter-personal skills, their team strengths, collaborative skills, unique thinking, approach and analysis of problems, as well as important personality traits such as integrity, tolerance and leadership. Many of these are incredibly subjective, yet they are increasingly relevant to the workplace and wider world. We must be assessing these areas. How we do in fact assess them: I have yet to fathom!
Alex Hems: I am an old-fashioned advocate of academic disciplines and content, and generally GCSEs have served all the schools I have worked in well. It has been good to see good schools recognising that students’ best interests are not always served by cramming in as many qualifications as possible at this stage, while still maintaining breadth for young people who are not yet ready to specialise at 16. Nine or ten examined courses at this stage should be fine, exploring subjects in both depth and breadth, while still allowing for wider interests such as involvement in sport, performing arts, community service etc. I am not convinced that GCSE meets the needs of all 16 year olds, however, and for those who are not able to achieve a pass grade in English, Maths or Science, there is a need for a meaningful qualification that indicates a level of achievement and ensures that they have acquired skills that they will need to function effectively in life after school.
Mark Taylor: My hope is that assessments will be more holistic, with a better shared understanding and use of Value Added data. The big issue is whether, or rather when, assessments like GCSE and A level in the UK moves online. There would be advantages potentially in speed of marking and security but huge challenges in running exams using computers for schools. The major question to me is: ‘what is the point of assessment?’: ‘to differentiate the levels of students’ learning and ability, or to show what they can do?’ We need to really work this one out.
In our sector assessments might change in style but probably will remain paper-based summative exams for the decade; otherwise it would be good to see a wider acceptance of technical and vocational qualifications with less academic elitism, as in Germany and Switzerland, for example.
Do you believe that the Governance model for your school, and indeed the education sector more broadly, will have changed in the next ten years?
Neil Brooks: If we were to take a lesson from history and look back ten years we can see that Governance will undoubtedly change in the next ten years. Legislation and regulations will change and schools, quite rightly (especially in the fee-paying, independent sector) will be increasingly accountable and duty-bound to compliance. This means that the “professionalisation” of governing bodies over the past ten years is set to increase in the next decade.
It is a big ask in the charitable sector to ask busy people to give freely of their time to help govern schools, but it is absolutely essential that Heads feel they have expert opinion and experience supporting, questioning and guiding them. The role of a Head is set to become more complicated and the governing body of a school needs to have a wealth of skillsets and viewpoints.
As with any industry, education cannot stand still, it has to adapt, pre-empt and innovate to keep society strong and healthy.
Alex Hems: Yes, I believe that some change is inevitable. Independent schools are medium sized businesses, many of which are operating in an increasingly challenging market. School governors are volunteers; many are extremely generous with their time and are very hard-working and committed. Their support is invaluable, and they carry significant personal liability, but as the financial pressures on schools, and the level of accountability and expectations of governors, increase I suspect that this model will be hard to sustain.
Mark Taylor: Without a doubt there will continue to be increased pressures and accountability for Governors, but let’s hope the volunteer model can be sustained. The importance of high quality Governor training in the form of on-site training, seminars etc. is really paramount. The ability to review own performance as a Governing Body (e.g. via Reviews of Governance) will remain key.
It is however much more critical that an effective school strategy is developed and AGBIS is increasingly being asked to provide a strategy day facilitation for schools. This is going to be so important as we move forward into this new decade for the independent sector.
How would you like to see the curriculum progress in the next ten years?
Neil Brooks: We must bend away to some degree from the cramming of facts and figures. The whole idea of education being for future recall is rapidly becoming redundant as information becomes easily accessible through computers and smart phones. What is important is the ability to qualify information, check its provenance and then apply it successfully to achieve a solution to a given task. I believe we will move away from the traditional subject areas and more towards how interconnected concepts and ideas are. The future might be to look at a region – say the Middle East – and explore its geography, history, religion, languages and politics in order to better understand the world today.
In addition to academic evolution, I believe that personal development will play a far greater role as we develop the skills needed by future employers. There will be greater collaboration, teamwork, problem-solving and creative pursuits in years to come. Independent schools are fortunate in being able to fund much of this now but there are challenges in providing opportunities in the maintained schools and this really needs to be considered across the board.
Alex Hems: I hope that we can maintain a sensible balance between skills and knowledge in our curriculum; creativity and collaboration are immensely important, but they do not occur in a vacuum and specialist knowledge, as well as the skills to manipulate it and the ability to think hard, will continue to have value. I would like to see a more central position given to critical thinking skills. In an information-rich environment, we need the ability to discern fact from fiction and to identify flawed arguments more than ever. Development of metacognition as part of learning would also help to develop the adaptability and successful life-long learning habits that I think young people today are going to need.
Mark Taylor: To have a broad and balanced ‘connected’ curriculum. We must maintain the importance of STEM but really must not throw away the traditional strengths either. The curriculum has not changed significantly in structure in over 50 years – the lifetime of the A level and O level. The UK curriculum narrows dramatically after GCSE at age 16 and I think if a change to broaden the skills taught and examined at 18 towards the IB model we would embrace that for our pupils, whilst keeping the in-depth study of the world-class A level curricula. Lack of breadth of study I think is the biggest weakness of A level graduates.
Can you share your biggest aspiration for the education sector in this new decade?
Neil Brooks: In the education sector we can be incredibly conservative and where innovation does flare, it can be in isolation. I hope that the independent sector and maintained sector can work to iron out inequalities of offering and work closely. Above all, I hope education can fundamentally instil an unswerving sense of responsibility in children, a responsibility for themselves, for others and for their environment.
Alex Hems: Although I have spent my career in secondary education, and largely in highly selective schools working with very bright young people, I believe that the best possible outcomes for our society will come from greater investment in really high quality pre-school to primary education and early interventions with families in need.
Mark Taylor: That it will be truly valued nationally and that we build on our international reputation in a post-Brexit world. High quality education is one of our greatest assets and exports. So I really hope the UK education sector continues to be recognised as world-leading in the quality of teaching, the pastoral care alongside the academic, which is a hallmark of our education style in state and private sectors, and with the gold standard of our A level assessment and outstanding renowned universities. I do have concerns about the university sector dropping academic standards in the marketplace for students, and this is something we must continue to push against from a primary and secondary education perspective.
Mr Neil Brooks, Cranleigh Prepatory School, Surrey
Following an early career as an Army Officer with the airborne forces, Neil began his twenty year career in education as a Housemaster at Cothill House, a boys’ full boarding preparatory school in Oxfordshire. He and his wife, Tracy, then helped to set up other initiatives within the Cothill Trust, covering eight preparatory schools. He went on to work with the Natural History Museum to deliver science courses combined with boarding experiences for inner-London children and briefly became Principal of the Cothill Trust, before joining Fulham Prep Schools as Principal.
In 2018 Neil left London to return to the holistic education he had been involved with at Cothill and was appointed Headmaster at Cranleigh Prep School. He and his wife work very much as a team. Neil has been a governor at Sandroyd School and currently chairs the Academic and Pastoral Committee of the board of governors at Ludgrove.
Mrs Alex Hems, St George’s School for Girls, Edinburgh
Alex studied English at Oxford and took her PGCE at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. She started her career at Alleyn’s School in London, a co-ed all-through school where she taught English and Latin. After three years she moved to St Paul’s Girls’ School, also as a teacher of English and Latin where she was involved in setting up a partnership programme with local state and independent schools.
In 2003 she moved to North London Collegiate School as Head of Sixth Form, and continued to teach English and oversaw the first years of the IB Diploma at the school. In 2007, after her marriage and the birth of her two children, she returned to St Paul’s as Head of Senior School. In 2011 she moved to take up the post of Deputy Head of Francis Holland School in London. In 2013 she moved to Wycombe Abbey School as a Deputy Head. She was a Governor at St George’s School, Ascot from 2013- 2016.
Since January 2017 Alex has been Head at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh.
Mark Taylor, Bursar, King’s School, Canterbury
Mark worked in the City before joining the Army in 1984. His career as a Bursar started in 1993 at Cranbrook School. He was then appointed Bursar at Dulwich Prep School, Cranbrook in 1996 and in January 2003, Bursar and Clerk to the Governors of the three Bedales Schools (pre-prep, prep and senior). In April 2010 Mark became the Bursar of the King’s School, Canterbury.
Mark has been an Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA) committee member since 2007 and was elected ISBA Chairman in 2013 – 2016. In October 2008 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (FRSA). He has been a Board Director for ISI and BSA. A Director on the ISC board he is also currently a Governor of Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and Chair of the East Kent Schools’ Together (EKST) Partnership Finance Committee, as well as being on the advisory board for the Institute of Development Professionals in Education (IDPE). He was elected as Chair of AGBIS in March 2019.