15th January 2019 — It is an interesting time to lead a prep school in the independent sector. We read with trepidation on a daily basis about the threats posed to our schools by Brexit, the possibility of a left wing government, the stagnant housing market, likelihood of VAT on fees et alia. The undesirable reality is that these pressures are not just news items anymore; they carry a very real and increasingly imminent danger. Consider the recent news about the Teachers’ Pension Scheme – a relatively short missive, the contents of which will cost most schools an unbudgeted six figure sum. Furthermore, many senior schools have now undercut the traditional model of 13+ prep school education by opening up earlier admissions into Years 7 & 8. This is certainly reflected in my vicinity, Surrey, where senior schools who could formerly be relied upon to retain a pathway for entry into Year 9 are now swelling their ranks with admissions into Year 7. Am I alone in noticing that such an expansion has often coincided with the announcement of a sister school on the other side of the world?
Given the current economic and political climate, it is more necessary than ever for prep schools to consider their place in the market and review their options accordingly. Whilst a number have already moved to a junior school model, removing their top two years and finishing at Year 6, an increasing proportion are seriously considering an expansion of their own, through to GCSE. I believe that it is advantageous to see the 16+ model as a wonderful challenge, a way to impart, pioneer and further bestow a prep school’s philosophy for an extra three years - rather than seeing it as an exercise driven by financial necessity. There are certainly many benefits to doing so and whilst this is by no means an exhaustive list, the points below were very much at the vanguard of my original mind-set when contemplating this change in strategic direction:
• An opportunity for specialist teaching staff to have a new academic challenge
• The potential to develop a unique curriculum for Years 7 & 8 to replace or augment that of Common Entrance
• Focus on the practical acquisition of important life skills and a business acumen
• Equipping pupils with an understanding of, and the necessary tools to negotiate, the virtual world as well as the real one
• Cultivation of values which will help the next generation grow into tolerant and benevolent global citizens
• Possibility of an increase in pupil numbers by retaining or recruiting children into the senior years
• Oversight of the all-round progress of pupils in a smaller, more personal, setting in which self-esteem might be more carefully propagated than in a larger environment
• New positions of responsibility, leadership training and the potential for mentorship roles between older pupils and younger counterparts
• Ability to set competitive fees for parents who might not otherwise be able to afford an independent education for their son or daughter
• A contemporary educational vehicle meeting the needs of those for whom an apprenticeship, vocational training or a career is an option as well as going to university
Naturally, there are many financial and logistical implications for a head and governing body to review carefully before making a decision of such magnitude. There is no magic formula that can be easily replicated from one school to the next. Kingswood House announced a move from 13+ to 16+ in 2016 and at the time of writing we now have our first, small Year 11 cohort sitting mock GCSEs. Time passes very quickly and effective auditing and planning are crucial. Two more 13+ prep schools in the Surrey district have recently announced the same impending move. Others will follow, I am certain, and not just in the south-east. But challenge brings opportunity; the beauty, as with any blank canvas, is that one has the ability to create a fresh picture upon it. I feel reassured that every institution which makes the paradigm shift up to GCSE will develop its own unique brand of education and values, governed only by the statutory exams which pupils must sit at the end of Year 11. As such, it is my aspiration that our schools can work together and share best practice without the shadow of competition becoming too onerous. As early members of the Sixteen Group, we are the pioneers of a contemporary model of independent education that deserves championing.
However, one should be in no doubt that the prospect of a move through to GCSE is a formidable undertaking, especially for a stand-alone prep school, and it is my aim for the Sixteen Group to establish a more robust and relevant framework for shared information and professional development on a national level. I would like our members to have a stronger degree of collaboration, based on mutual transparency and trust, in order that we can showcase our innovative model of education effectively and hold practically useful meetings for established providers as well as those for whom the 16+ model may be a potential option in the future.
Headmaster, Kingswood House School
Duncan is the IAPS 16+ Schools’ Ambassador for the Sixteen Group and a member of the Society of Heads.