HMC’s annual get-together this year is at the Intercontinental O2, an enormous monument to steel and plate glass architectural ambition on the southern mender of the Thames. As I write I am facing the mesmerising panorama of Canary Wharf as the outriders of Hurricane Lorenzo race through, the gleaming slabs of the financial district reflecting a sky in turmoil. It’s an image that has parallels with the mood of the meeting this year, as independent school Heads contemplate the latest policy announcements from the Labour Party Conference last week; taxation, abolition and redistribution, the storm clouds seemed to be gathering as HMC prepares yet another rearguard action against a battalion of threats. The very good opening address by this year’s Chair, Fiona Boulton (Guildford High School) focused as might be expected on the benefits of collaboration with the state sector, the investment in bursaries and the sharing of facilities and resources with state school which continue to suffer from underfunding. But there was also defensiveness there too, inevitable given the context, and some justifiable defiance. Angela Rayner really had thrown the proverbial kitchen sink at the private sector in a speech that went down very well at the Labour Conference but then had a distinctly lukewarm reception from the broader audiences, both public and media. Sticks and stones I guess in the end and maybe the brief political squall served both sides well as it galvanised opinion as much as it polarised views.
As always I feel a little bit on the edge of the debate here, but very glad that I have come nonetheless. Despite the preoccupation with politics, the conference has once again been endowed with breadth, richness and diversity. The range of schools from the UK and abroad lends a range of experience that cannot be matched by the state sector, and the pulling power that HMC has enables the conference to attract great speakers – notable this year was Mark Thompson (CEO of the ‘failing’ New York Times and ex-DG of the BBC) who spoke compellingly about the role of the media in times of uncertainty and the rise of populism. It would be difficult to find a better advocate for the Fourth Estate on either side of the Atlantic and it was fascinating to hear the inside track on some of the great issues impacting on press freedom and independence over the past two decades. Networking with other Heads and exhibitors at conferences is always useful and often interesting, but my annual pilgrimage to this conference is invariably made memorable by a headline speaker.
I will come away with some misgivings nonetheless; my unanswered questions about Oxbridge admissions, the nature of charitable status and the fairness (or otherwise) of the employment of top-quality teachers when state schools are struggling to persist. State schools are compared, unfairly, to HMC schools of the same size which have operating budgets which are three or even four times larger, and yet the state sector is targeted all too often as being ‘inefficient’ (I include BWS in this of course). But despite these concerns, I am still really glad that HMC is there, and that the many fine schools that it includes continue to give parents the choice that they deserve. My job is to make sure that Bishop’s can match the best of them so that as many parents as possible can access an education for their children that is of startlingly high quality, and there is no doubt in my mind that attending the HMC gathering at the O2 helps me to do the job.