After speaking at the annual Heads’ conference, several journalists were eager for a story, as I suppose were we. As an Association committed to boarding we want good stories to show its benefits and one purpose of the conference is to celebrate the benefits of boarding. To be fair to the journalists, they have to sell to their editors a story which is news worthy.

However, the space-limited nature of the press meant that some of what was said was not relayed and instead the focus of the story became policies around mobile phone use. 

One of the more interesting questions was around Justine Greening’s comments earlier that morning about her preference for firms to use contextual data when recruiting. Using the clichéd comparator for all independent schools, Eton College, she rightly claimed that the grades of an Etonian who gained the same grades as an applicant who came from a struggling comprehensive were perhaps not as strong.

In so many respects she is right, and I will often say to a Cranleighan who is not performing as they should that he or she will not come across at all well at interview if they have not taken advantage of their privilege. However, the journalists chose not to report the learning that the conference speakers were suggesting.

Justine Greening’s comments miss the mark on two linked counts. The first is that every time a politician plays the elitist comparator card, the argument shifts away from the real need which is significant increased investment in the maintained sector in teachers, in facilities in morale, and often in the poorest areas. 

The second, and this was emphasised by David Price OBE one of the first speakers at our conference, that there needs to be a complete revision of our 19th Century approach to learning and to qualifications so that our pupils are better prepared for a fast-changing world. The rise of AI may lead either to a loss of conventional forms of employment or the creation of new ones and therefore new collaborative and open approaches to learning are coming to the fore. Sitting isolated in an exam hall may not be the answer!

In short, workforce patterns are changing so rapidly that the idea that there will be lots of employers in corporate firms sitting down choosing between large numbers of private and maintained-sector educated applicants armed with mounds of contextual data sufficient to make a difference to social mobility is misplaced.

The title of the Conference was ‘Transforming Communities’: boarding schools are and should be transformative places for those who live and work in with them and that they should encourage those leaving to use the privilege of their boarding experience to serve and transform the communities in which they will take their place.

So much of the conference was about giving children a sense of purpose – not happiness, or qualifications or achievements alone, but answering the question in the words of Steve Chalke, quoting Rabbi Akiva: ‘who are you and why are you here?’.

Clearly there is some gross and inherent unfairness in society and those things that hinder social mobility need to be addressed. However, we desperately need to change the language of the educational landscape so it is about children and purpose and not about political division or we will continue to tinker and never provide solutions which are transformative for all.