If you were thinking of setting up an educational project, you could do a lot worse than have Dr Martin Stephen on your side.
A former high master of St Paul’s and Manchester Grammar, an expert in gifted and talented education, an author and commentator, he sits alongside Sir Anthony Seldon as one of the doyens of independent education.
It is perhaps why financier Hugh Dickinson approached him several years ago for help setting up a group of affordable private schools – a start-up project now known as Concept Education Group.
The group recently bought its first school – The Marist School in Ascot – casting the spotlight on the venture, with many in the independent sector keen to learn more about its ambitions and aims.
“One of the aims was to see if we could recreate the type of school that my father could afford to send me to.”
Stephen, who is chair of the Concept board, agreed to speak to School Management Plus to explain more about the group’s plans and educational ideas, and his own drivers for getting involved.
He is the most high-profile educator on the board, which is made up of figures from the worlds of finance and independent education.
He says: “I was minded of the fact that my father was a GP who, admittedly with a very small amount of family money, was able to send three sons to independent schools.
“I’ve been on record for many years saying that fee increases were out of control and that actually the independent sector was heading down a very dangerous path with these huge fees by making themselves the preserve of the super-rich.
“One of the aims behind Concept Education was to see if we could recreate the type of school that my father could afford to send me to.”
He explains how his own son, a privately educated lawyer with a lawyer wife, could not afford school fees for his three children and had opted for the state sector instead.
“So that is one driver, whether you can actually combine affordability with efficiency, without reducing the educational standards,” he says.
But is the idea to drag up the concept of the “no frills” school that was much-discussed following the 2008 financial crisis?
“There is a big danger, who actually defines what is a frill?”
Absolutely not, he says, because what is seen as a frill in one context might not be a frill in others.
He describes a governor of a very traditional boarding school that once described the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme as “frills”.
“The Duke of Edinburgh is wonderful, it’s a magnificent scheme which has literally changed lives. There is a big danger, who actually defines what is a frill?”
Likewise, Stephen is reluctant to define what “affordable” fees might be.
“We will try and keep fees at the level for somebody on a reasonable salary can afford,” he says, Offering a little more clarity, he adds: “affordable to a GP whose partner works part-time.”
Boarding schools, he says, are the hardest of all to offer affordably given the costs of energy and non-negotiable safeguarding obligations, but the group has not ruled out taking them on. Combined day and boarding schools could provide the answer, as could weekly boarding options.
“I have a lot of sympathy for the boarding schools…it’s much easier to produce the affordable school which is really really high standard within the day environment,” he says.
“We don’t want to create one of these vast over-weaning head offices.”
So how does Concept plan to drive down costs at the same time as providing innovative education of a high standard?
Some of the answer, Stephen says, may lie in the state sector, or within the small family-run preps which offer so much on a tight budget.
“I was one of the founder governors of the [state-funded, selective] London Academy of Excellence…it’s phenomenally successful, it runs on between a half and a third of the fee charged by most independent high schools.”
He also praises the inner city London comprehensive Regent High School, where he is chair of governors: “That is an outstanding school, does a brilliant job, and does that on the money it receives from the government.
“I think we’re in a slightly ironic situation where I think the independent sector could learn one or two things from the state sector.”
Efficiencies can be made through schools grouping together, he says, although his experience of seeing “overly large” Multi Academy Trusts has convinced him that keeping things relatively small is important.
“I was saddened by how few HMC schools were doing any sharp-edged thinking.”
“The plan is to grow into a relatively small group of schools. Again, we want to keep that head office right down…We don’t want to create one of these vast over-weaning head offices which increasingly sucks more and more money into it.
“I’m not saying that small is beautiful, what I’m saying is there is an optimum size where you can get a lot of the advantages of having more than one school with none of the disadvantages.”
Stephen remains tight-lipped on when and where Concept might acquire its next school.
In addition to bringing down fees, the group has educational ambitions too. Despite a reluctance to tell its schools what to do, it will promote innovation, he says.
“One of my nervousnesses about the independent sector is that it hasn’t been terribly innovative and I think one of the justifications for having an independent sector is that is should look at new ideas…I looked at the website of nearly every major HMC school and was saddened by how few of them were doing any sharp-edged thinking.”
He sings the praises of The Thinking School as a “wonderful concept”, the ideas of educationalist Charlotte Mason and the Khan Academy, among others.
He adds: “We’re not hooked on any one thing, but we are hooked on seeing what we can learn from the major advances. And perhaps the time is right for a new sort of concept because times have changed a lot for young people as a result of the pandemic.”
“We are not writing a new book with The Marist, we are writing a new chapter.”
A key focus, he said, was producing resilient young people who see themselves as the first port of call when they have a problem and can stand on their own two feet in the modern world.
Despite this enthusiasm for innovation, Stephen insists that the schools Concept acquires won’t be forced into things they don’t want to do.
He says of The Marist School: “What we have is a very successful school…we are not writing a new book with The Marist, we are writing a new chapter in what is already a very good book.
“We don’t want to take anything away, we hope we might be able to add something.”
This approach may have emerged from Stephen’s own dislike of government education ministers “who have an idea and come in and yell at people about that idea”.
He says: “One of the great things about Concept is that it doesn’t come in with too many pre-meditated ideas, it comes in with a lot of awareness of what is happening in education in the modern world at the moment…we will come into our schools, we will look, learn and listen and then we will start offering suggestions from that gallery of what we know is happening.”
“One of things that I’m extremely aware of as a headmaster for 25 years is that the governing body needs to be non-executive.”
“The direction the school takes is from the head’s office.”
And many of our headteacher readers would drink to that.