Exclusive: Hinds 'prepared to listen' to us, says independent schools' leader

Independent school head says his former Oxford University friend Damian Hinds will come up with 'pragmatic' solutions

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The education secretary is “prepared to listen” to the independent sector, according to the incoming chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC).

Shaun Fenton, who is also headmaster of the independent Reigate Grammar School, in Surrey, suggested Damian Hinds would be more collaborative than his predecessor, Justine Greening.

A green paper, launched by Ms Greening nearly 18 months ago, said independent schools would have to work with state schools, or could face losing the tax breaks that come with charitable status.

The proposals were heavily criticised by former HMC chairman Mike Buchanan as amounting to "a gun pointing to our heads".

Asked whether Mr Hinds was likely to strike a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor, Justine Greening, Mr Fenton said: “I’m very hopeful. He seems to be someone who’s prepared to listen, who’s willing to look for pragmatic and sustainable solutions.”

The pair were friends at Oxford University, where they both read politics, philosophy and economics and were involved in the Oxford Union.

Asked whether they found themselves on the same side of the debate, he replied: “Yes, we were friends.

“He was president and I was a mere mortal, but we knew each other and met up a few years ago. I’ve got a lot of time for him professionally.”

They have not met since Mr Hinds’ appointment in January, Mr Fenton said.

The government is yet to respond to the consultation on its Green Paper. However, at end of last year, the Department for Education set up a team, known as the System Partnership Unit, to “broker partnerships” between private and state schools.

Mr Fenton, who is unusual in having led a state comprehensive, a state grammar and an independent school, supports a political climate that encourages alliances between the independent and state sectors, although is sceptical as to whether these can be imposed from Whitehall.

He said: “All the best partnerships are authentic, local, based on real relationships.

"I’m a bit suspicious of any government view that you can have a silver bullet from Westminster.”

Mr Fenton's comments come as new figures show that at least nine schools have changed their legal status from charitable to non-charitable in the past year, attributed to "cranked-up" political "rhetoric".

The figures, from the Independent Schools Council's annual census, also show that 86 per cent of ISC schools engage in "public benefit activities", while 75 per cent have charitable status.

The partnerships include academy sponsorship, seconding teaching staff and serving as governors at state schools.

Collectively, 1,911 independent school facilities are shared with local state schools, the census shows.

This is an edited version of an article in the 27 April edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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