HMC thoughts

Bald fact: Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) schools met this week in London over three days. Question 1: what is HMC? It is a small group (253) of independent schools identified by the OECD as the best group of schools in the world. We are a diverse bunch – the most formal and household name schools are not typical – neither is Bedales. 35% of HMC students are girls (with 83% of HMC schools being co-educational and a growing number all girls), a quarter of students are from ethnic minorities and 6% are from overseas. HMC has played a leading role in calling government to account – most notably perhaps in 2002 when we cast a shining a light on the A Level marking fiasco and again in 2012 when HMC led in publishing an enquiry into the quality of marking and conduct of appeals about examination results; the DfE found it “persuasive and the conclusions shocking”. The grip of HMC students on the most vulnerable subjects at university (SIV – Stategically Important and Vulnerable, as defined by the government) is considerable: we supply 25% or more of the entrants to these SIV subjects at the UK’s top 30 universities – from 26% of those studying French to 42% of all studying Economics. One in four students at the UK’s ten leading universities are from HMC schools. Finally, two stats that might surprise: there is greater ethnic diversity in independent schools in England than in state-maintained schools; and over 35% of students at HMC schools receive help with their fees, with £365 million in fee assistance being provided in 2013.

Question 2: what goes on at an HMC conference? Lots of chat and lots of thinking. From a Bedales perspective, this year was particularly notable in that it is the first time that the HMC Chair has been a Bedales governor – Tim Hands of Magdalen College School and formerly of Portsmouth Grammar School. Tim made the theme of this year’s conference The Child. In his address he referred to the three most important elements of the education we provide as the pastoral, the academic and the extra-curricular, declaring that the “first and most important is the pastoral..pastoral care is the essence of independent schools..” The conference was cleverly and humanely organised so that the first full day (Tuesday) put us in the position of our students, starting with an assembly, moving on to have a range of lessons (in PPE and Classics for me), a University Talk (with Sir Rick Trainor, Principal of King’s College, London to the fore), a Careers talk (albeit from Lords Levene, Myners, Waldegrave, Sir Peter Ogden and Sir David Walker and in the stunning setting of the Mansion House) and finally an evening that could have been at Bedales – with student music and poetry, both from HMC’s own competition and from the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. In all it was a day that reminded us that we are here to serve children.  Wednesday offered us professional training through covering a day in the life of the head – from managing IT to Managing yourself.

Just in case we started to get complacent we had a serious ticking off – from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools who, with surprising hamfistedness, lambasted us as a group for not doing enough for disadvantaged pupils in our local communities. His speech was clumsy in its lack of recognition of what is already happening in this regard and, as an educator he should know that you don’t tend to get the best out of people when you tick a large group off on the assumption that they are all guilty.

So, overall, a really invigorating time: even better than all the public stuff is, of course, all that you learn through talking to other heads – whether fresh-faced newcomers or my relatively grizzled contemporaries, some of whom I have known since university.  Conviviality and fellowship refresh after all.


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.