‘The image of the exclusive private school has to be a thing of the past’

Shortly before her death, ISMP ran this interview with Emma Pattison, head of Epsom College

Emma Pattison, head of Epsom College

Editor’s note: This interview with Emma Pattison was published on ISMP just a week before her death over the weekend. We hope it gives readers a glimpse of her inspiring and compassionate leadership and her ambitions for Epsom College. 

At Epsom College, where she took up her post as head in September 2022, Emma Pattison is unswervingly committed to the college’s key principle of benevolence. The college was founded by Dr John Propert in 1855 as The Royal Medical Benevolent College, taking the name of Epsom College only in 1910.

Today, the Royal Medical Foundation is an independent charity, located at Epsom College, supporting medical families experiencing hardship. Unsurprisingly, with charity underpinning the school’s foundation, service is a core value here.

Charity is a topical subject in the independent sector as the charitable status of our schools is currently subject to scrutiny and criticism from some quarters. Emma acknowledges that “We’re all considering our charitable status in independent schools and wanting to make sure we uphold the values inherent in that, particularly in a college like ours which was founded on those principles.”

Emma is proud of the central role that service plays at Epsom College. In one academic year, Epsom pupils gave over 8,500 hours of their time to charitable community projects, delivering an estimated £40,000 of social value. Over 60 per cent of sixth form students elect community service as their activity of choice in their weekly Wednesday afternoon enrichment programme. Their contributions include working in primary schools, offering website support for local charities, creating community play spaces, supporting food banks, visiting care home residents and getting involved in fund-raising initiatives at the Royal Marsden Hospital.

“There’s been an absolute sea change in what parents talk about.”

As school communities evaluate the pandemic and its aftermath, I asked Emma whether aspirations have been re-imagined?  What do parents want to buy in a post-lockdown education marketplace?

Emma is open and direct as she acknowledges a new era: “There’s been an absolute sea change in what parents talk about. They used to talk about results and Oxbridge. That has turned about-face completely since Covid. It’s now about well-being, pastoral care, kindness, service and charity.”

All parents want the best for their children, so what does “the best” look like in schools? Emma believes that it is the life-affirming, confidence-boosting self-esteem that pupils gain from “giving back” through service to others.

She illustrates her view through this story:

“There’s a young lad here who’s made a couple of errors of judgement this term. Yet he’s gone out into a local primary school as part of our service programme where, because he knows what it feels like when you’re not getting things right. Because he has a lovely warm personality, he’s been able to engage with another lad who’s struggling in the local school and really make a difference to that lad’s experience. Our college pupil was able to use his own life experiences to really transform life for someone else. We think that’s a very powerful thing.”

When she told this story at a marketing event, Emma could see that it really resonated. “Afterwards, parents told me, ‘That’s what I want for my child, too’”.

“We want pupils to find things that are going to matter to them for the rest of their lives.”

Emma’s views are fresh and forward-thinking, a far cry from traditional perceptions of aloof elitism in the independent sector.

She says: “We all want to give our kids the best experiences possible. And that looks like teaching excellence, state-of the art classrooms, outstanding sports facilities and over-flowing extra-curricular programmes. But an independent school education offers more than that.

“We want pupils to find things that are going to matter to them for the rest of their lives, and nothing could matter more to them than the person they are going to become. So it’s really important that we create learning experiences that help them to define their values, their own moral code and their own sense of integrity.“

An affordable education

In the current economic downturn, admissions departments need to be wary. Not all independent school parents are wealthy. With her down-to-earth understanding of the grass roots, Emma is fully aware that “We have parents who are working really, really hard to afford our fees and on whom the decisions we make have a significant impact, not just on their lifestyle choices but on the financial bottom line of the household.

“Some of those parents …. are being really impacted themselves by the onslaught of the recession. We’re duty bound, not just to inoculate ourselves, but to think very, very carefully about our parents.”

In practical ways, Emma is committed to keeping close tabs on spending; budget forecasting currently happens every half term. Equally, she wants her parents to appreciate the rationale for possible changes in the day-to-day offerings of the college.

The quality of education will never be at stake, but the cost of things that sit around the edges of school life, like events-catering, need to be carefully considered. And it’s not just about finance but about sustainability too: spending on paper cups is as problematic for the environment as it is for the purse when it’s simple enough to bring your own mug!


In her unassuming way, Emma has put forward some bold visions. Equally, her leadership style welcomes dreams and ideas from across the school community; she has been busy collating opinions from staff, student and parents’ surveys in her first term as head at Epsom.

Collaboration through constant dialogue underpins her interactions with her team. Emma describes the value she places on dialogue: “I’m a real advocate for hearing what people have got to say and letting that percolate. One of the main problems of Covid was that the water cooler conversations didn’t happen. It’s in those conversations that the innovative spark is ignited. As a leadership team, we want to establish a culture of ideas. If you know someone is going to take your idea forward, and give shape to it, and make sure it lands in the right forum, then you will keep coming forward with ideas.”

“As a leadership team, we want to establish a culture of ideas.”

Emma’s commitment to partnerships is a further indication of her passion for open dialogue: she feels that “independent schools who work in silos limit their output”. During her tenure as head at Croydon High School, she recognised the significant value of working under the umbrella of the GDST. Consequently, in her current role, Emma is working on setting up an advisory body, initially drawing on personnel and expertise from the Epsom Friends of the College Group.

Widening access

Getting out into the community through partnership work is a route to widening access in the sector. Traditionally, bursaries are the recognised strategy for awarding life-changing opportunities for those children and families fortunate enough to receive them. Many schools have made huge financial commitments to growing their bursary funds.

But alongside that, Emma wants independent schools to be places where a more diverse group of people can come for particular classes and access to a range of projects. Her vision is to open up access on a smaller scale, thereby reaching a wider section of the community and “being part of the solution to some of the problems in society”.

“Exclusivity is a dirty word nowadays.”

In an unorthodox response to what is often perceived as a political smear, Emma openly acknowledges that many of society’s leaders benefited from an independent school education. And so, “If our pupils are going to lead in the world, let’s make sure that they really understand that world, they understand the structure of it, the problems, the issues and why things can’t just be fixed so easily”.

Emma is very clear that “The image of the exclusive private school has to be a thing of the past. Exclusivity is a dirty word nowadays. The independent schools’ sector has to offer something very different going forward, for its own pupils and for the social impact it could bring.”

An exciting future

We, who live and work in the independent schools’ sector, know that a cold wind is blowing in our direction in political and economic terms. But with a problem also comes an opportunity. If what we are selling is an education that promotes service, that grows an understanding of community and demands a wider knowledge of the world around us, then more parents will buy into it. In Emma’s final words, the cold wind may just sweep the cobwebs away, because “It could be time to shape a really exciting future for the country”.

Emma Pattison – biography:
Growing up on a farm in Lincolnshire, Emma is no stranger to the grass roots. As a child, she recalls feeding chickens at 6.30am as part of everyday life in a close-knit, hard-working farming community. Life was practical and down-to-earth. Emma attended her local girlsgrammar school, where a key part of her learning experience was to work with nearby primary schools as part of a community service programme.
In her career, Emma has built up extensive knowledge of the independent sector, having been head of modern foreign languages at Guildford High School, deputy head (academic) at St Johns Leatherhead and head at Croydon High School before taking up her current post in September 2022.


This article originally appeared in the latest print and digital turnpage edition of School Management Plus, out now.