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Friendly society edges into spotlight

THE public debate over the arts by the Society of Headmasters and Headmistresses of Independent Schools is further evidence of an institution carving out a higher profile for itself after years in relative obscurity.

Last year, the then chairman David Crawford hit the headlines when he used his annual conference speech to attack leading politicians for failing to set a moral example. And in March this year, for the first time, the whole conference was open to the press and schools minister Estelle Morris addressed it. She said state schools could learn from schools like those in the society how to teach able and gifted children.

The society's traditional discreet friendliness is a quality much prized by its 80 members. While mostly smaller and less well-known than those in the Head Masters' and Mistresses' Conference and Girls' Schools Association, members include famous names in arts education, such as the Yehudi Menuhin and Purcell music schools and Elmhurst ballet school. The membership spans the ability range, with some schools specialising in dyslexic pupils.

Another notable aspect is that about half of member schools have an overt spiritual or religious ethos: Leighton Park, for instance, the "Quaker Eton" headed by the current society chairman, John Dunston. (He himself is Jewish and says his appointment is a fine example of Quaker tolerance.) Arts in schools was the theme of last week's meeting at Leighton Park in Reading, as it has been for all of this year's conferences - not surprising under the chairmanship of Mr Dunston.

Blessed with a fine bass voice, he once reached number four in the charts with a group called The Congregation, has sung with the Hamburg State Opera and is currently with the Bach Choir. He thinks the decline of music in state schools is a tragedy - "it's not a peripheral extra" - and is proud it has stayed alive in the independent sector.

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