“You’ve got a huge range of different schools within the HMC…but it’s quite easy to get pushed into a corner talking about Eton and Harrow… and maybe St Paul’s,” says Melvyn Roffe, the incoming chair of the HMC and principal of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh.
He has sat down to chew the educational cud with ISMP and seems keen to express his frustrations about how the HMC and the sector in general is perceived, and the questions it is asked.
“Let’s talk about the things we do want to talk about rather than being pushed into constant conversations about charitable status and whether we should exist. That’s important but that’s not the contribution we best make to the system as a whole,” he says.
“Part of the intention, part of the mood, is to talk about other things, let’s talk to other people.”
In an attempt to solve this, the HMC is opening up the final day of its annual conference this October to school leaders from across Britain, from both state and independent schools. The day will address the big educational issues of our times that transcend sectors and borders.
“Hopefully, that will be symbolic of the sector coming back from Covid and looking for ways of adding value to the educational debate and discussion and provision generally rather than talking to itself too much,” says Roffe, saying the Edinburgh event will be “the biggest collection of heads together in Scotland that there has ever been,” including colleagues from IAPs.
“Part of the intention, part of the mood, is to talk about other things, let’s talk to other people,” he adds.
So he wants the HMC to play a key role around big-picture issues such as inclusion and assessment reform, but what are Roffe’s big immediate concerns for education on a personal and school level? Recruitment, of course, is the issue that never goes away. For Scottish independent schools, the pressures can be greater as they do not have the option of taking on talented but unqualified teachers.
“Some of the most committed and interesting and able teachers have come through the TeachFirst route.”
Scottish schools of all kinds also miss out on the flow of teachers from classroom-based routes such as TeachFirst. Roffe, who has led George Watson’s since 2014, argues that there needs to be some “very careful thought” around this as it strangles teacher recruitment from south of the border.
Roffe, who previously led Wymondham College in Norfolk, says: “My experience of TeachFirst candidates was some of the most committed and interesting and able teachers have come through that route. There seems to be no strategic thought…you can will the end but you need to will the means as well.”
Despite the overarching recruitment pressures, Roffe speaks positively about the changing expectations of staff post-Covid. Staff in many schools are asking for more flexibility to their work, something he sees can have benefits for everyone.
“I’m very resistant to the narrative that teachers want to slope off early because coronavirus has made them want to work from home all the time”
He says: “It’s not unreasonable what staff are asking. Certainly there are increased requests for flexible working on family grounds and we’ve had to think very carefully about whether there are things we can do to make our ways of working more family friendly without losing anything.
“There’s no sense in which that represents a diminution of commitment to the job…I’m very resistant to the narrative that ‘teachers want to slope off early because coronavirus has made them want to work from home all the time’, this sort of Jacob Rees-Mogg narrative.
“If you know that you can deliver a whole curriculum without anyone being in the building, then any thing less than that level of change is deliverable.”
Of course, one of the big issues for independent schools across Scotland is the disappearance of non-domestic rates relief, that has added significantly to schools’ bills since it came into force on April 1.
Roffe has been outspoken against the move which he regards as nonsensical.
He says: “The fact that we are not benefiting now from non-domestic rates relief is a blow and is one of those paradoxes.
“The one set of charities that has proven to the regulator more than any other charity in the UK that they are charities is the one set of charities that doesn’t actually benefit from being a charity in financial terms.
“If you know that you can deliver a whole curriculum without anyone being in the building, then anything less than that level of change is deliverable.”
“At the moment it causes the sector a lot of heartache because in terms of economics we know the more costs we have the higher our fees will be and the less affordable.”
He has described the situation as “swimming against the tide” and “an Alice in Wonderland world”.
“In a city like Edinburgh I think everybody knows that our education system would not cope without us. We educate nearly 30 pc of the school population.
“To anyone who talks to me about ‘tax breaks for posh schools’ or whatever, I say – a conservative estimation – we save the ex-chequer a million pounds a month in educating 2,500 children at virtually no cost to the state.”
But will schools close because of the move, as independent sector leaders have warned will happen in England if VAT becomes chargeable on school fees at schools with charitable status?
“In a city like Edinburgh I think everybody knows that our education system would not cope without us.”
Roffe says: “If everything else was rosy and we didn’t have all the other pressures on us, I would say there is very little chance of that in itself causing schools to close but in the circunstances that we are in with so many cost pressures piling on left right and centre I think there is a risk that it would be a contributing factor.
“In the current economic climate you would be a brave person to say that no schools will close in the next five years.”