Need to know: This week's HMC conference

Leaders of the country's most prestigious independent schools are gathering this week

HMC meet for their annual conference

Today, school leaders from some of the country’s leading independent schools meet for the start of the annual Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC).

Here is everything you need to know.

What is the HMC?

In its own words, it is the professional association of heads of the world’s leading independent schools.

It dates back to 1869 and its membership of almost 300 schools includes some of the most famous names in education, such as Eton, Marlborough and Westminster.

So this is very different from your typical education conference?

Yes and no.

When Tes asked Mike Buchanan, the HMC’s new executive director,  what its members' main concerns were, his answers sounded all too familiar…

…teacher shortages, then?

Of course, the context of HMC schools is very different to those in the state sector, but Mr Buchanan says the pressures around the recruitment and retention of teachers is being felt by some independent schools.

“In certain sections of the country, in certain subjects, the challenge of recruiting fantastic teachers who are expert in their field is high,” he says.

“It does vary from place to place, but the challenges we face in a different context are very similar [to the state sector] – finding the right people has got to be headteachers’ great obsession."

What else is worrying private school heads?

Unconditional offers.

Mr Buchanan has registered his concern about the growing trend of universities offering places to A-level students regardless of the grades they receive.

With universities now competing for students, the number of unconditional offers has risen sharply in recent years, with 23 per cent of pupils now receiving at least one from the universities to which they have applied.

Mr Buchanan has warned that this is leading to A-level students “taking their foot off the gas” and being lumbered with grades that do not do them justice.

Anything else?

Yes, like universities, private schools are competing for students and are reliant on the income they bring with them.

Mr Buchanan told Tes that, outside of London, schools had to work to ensure they attracted the pupils they needed.

For private schools in the capital, he says,  it is relatively straightforward for schools to recruit the numbers they need.

But elsewhere the story is different.

Mr Buchanan says that his former school – Ashford School in Kent – had to work day-in, day out to sell the education they offered to prospective parents.

He says the majority of independent schools are small, with less than 400 students, and are run on tight margins.

But things are looking brighter overseas

One area in which independent British schools are experiencing a lot of demand is the international market.

The number that are now opening sister schools abroad or establishing partnerships with international students is growing faster than ever before, according to figures published today.

The HMC has revealed that 73 schools or partnerships have been set up by British schools – and more than 10 in the past 12 months.

HMC chair Shaun Fenton said the figures showed that the independent schools sector was a strong export for the country. 

What else will the HMC be celebrating?

Heads are keen to show how their schools are providing opportunities for disadvatanged pupils.

The HMC has said that Independent schools now spend £362 million each year – almost a million pounds each day – on means-tested discounted fees, up almost 5 per cent in the past year.

It also highlights the work that every HMC school puts into state school partnership work, which it says includes “academic enrichment, targeted teaching, sports coaching, use of facilities, arts and cultural events and training staff.”

Mr Buchanan says that while some people associate private schools with unfairness in society, HMC members are working to become a part of the solution.

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