Leading law firm VWV annual conference Practical Strategies could not have come at a better time this year as Brexit, ed policy and the Goddard inquiry produced a cloud of uncertainty over the education sector.
Mark Taylor, bursar of King’s School Canterbury, opened the conference and welcomed the record number of bursars in attendance - which he described as a 'complete sellout.'
Mark said that the issues schools were initially concerned about this year, such as staff accommodation provision, all paled into significance after the Brexit vote in June. Another surprise topic to be added to the programme was new Prime Minister Theresa May’s Green Paper, ‘Schools that work for everyone’. The paper again placed a question mark over independent schools’ public benefit, by enforcing school partnerships and bursaries at the risk of losing their charitable status. Although independent schools fundamentally agree with widening access and opportunities, Mark says, most are already doing a great deal of work and do not welcome an enforced, ‘one size fits all’ forced partnership programme.
In the first plenary session of the day, Kate Gallafent QC from Blackstone Chambers gave an update on the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), formerly known as the Goddard Inquiry. The inquiry’s investigation into residential schools is in its preliminary stagesand no case studies have yet been selected. She thinks that the Inquiry will be interested in schools which have had more than one conviction of child sexual abuse, where there has been a lack of communication with other agencies and schools are either examples of best practice (with clear evidence of lessons learned) or are at the other end of the spectrum..
Kate advises that some schools have received letters asking for information. Her advice? Schools receiving such requests should proceed with care and all schools should be vigilant about document retention, preserving all relevant materials. Destroying documents doesn’t just mean putting them in the shredder, Kate reminds delegates – overwriting a file on your computer does the same thing.
Kate also advised that claims and damages can be historically far-reaching and are increasing. Schools should explore and record their historic insurance arrangements.
She acknowledged that pupil to pupil sexting is a key sector issue but considers it unlikely that it will be deemed to fall within the remit of this Inquiry.
Next, John Edward, Director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) discussed the implications of Brexit for the independent sector. John was a spokesperson for the ‘remain’ campaign in Scotland, Scotland Stronger in Europe, and makes no bones about his position. He reminded delegates that the impact of Britain leaving the EU will vary depending on the school’s situation – there are different curricula, inspectorates, qualification systems and government departments across the UK. However, the process is likely to affect several areas:
The world we are operating in is slightly different to what we were used to, John reminded delegates, and the management of our EU exit negotiations will affect Britain’s reputation and attractiveness as a place to study. However, the vote should not affect short-term planning as the negotiations are expected to take at least two years once Article 50 is triggered.
Matthew Burgess, partner at VWV, looked at the ‘Schools that work for everyone’ Green Paper. He advised that the current model of trustee discretion over public benefit is due to be reviewed, and potentially replaced with legal targets and thresholds. Failure to comply with these could result in removal of benefits associated with charitable status. Matthew told delegates that depending on the outcome of the consultation and the direction the Government takes, we could be witnessing 'Chexit' as schools seek to exit the charitable sector However, Partner Barney Northover said the Green Paper could be viewed as a strategic opportunity. If your school is likely to be expected to do more, start to build this into your long-term planning instead of adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach, he said. For example, independent schools could set up ‘feeder’ primary schools, free schools or even move to the state sector if it is unable to meet the requirements.
Next, Patrick Roberts, bursar of Cranleigh School spoke about developing the school estate. Patrick has been bursar at Cranleigh for over a decade and has overseen many projects, as part of a wider masterplan for the estate.
There has been a steady increase in building projects in schools in recent years, Patrick said, as the recession fades and banks and more willing to lend. Performing arts and sports centres are particularly popular, but there is a big variety.
Patrick’s key advice in estates development was to create a master plan and stick to it. Schools are not short of ideas, he reminded delegates, but bursars need the time to develop them, consult with stakeholders and work out the timescales. Timing is everything, he said – schools should communicate the vision through the master plan, give themselves enough time and consider the variables of the project. These variables can include:
After a day of stimulating and topical sessions, the final plenary was delivered by Frances King, CEO and Head of the Mill Hill School Foundation. Frances discussed the changing relationship between man and machine, citing the invention of the ‘world’s first social robot’ Jibo and the fact that many jobs are at risk of obsolescence due to technological advances. If jobs are to be replaced by robots, how can schools prepare pupils for new jobs that don’t exist yet? Frances recommends regular training for staff and teachers, demonstrating the value of in-person learning, and reviewing the curriculum regularly to equip pupils for their future – whatever that may be.
VWV next Practical Strategies conference takes place in September 2017.
This article was first published in the November issue of Independent Education Today.