“Too many people have their image of a prep school from Hogwarts and JK Rowling, and that kind of thing,” sighs Chris King, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS).
“A modern prep school has got to be a damn sight more relevant than a school that is stuck in the 19th century, let alone the 20th century,” he says.
Speaking to Tes, King is keen to dispute the typical image people may have of a prep school – one that might be more akin to Tom Brown’s School Days than a modern, 21st century school.
Exclusive: Private schools 'lifted' from Covid gloom
Private schools: Schools leaving the Teachers' Pension Scheme
In fact, he champions one example of innovation in the classroom – the use of mobile phones, unlike education secretary Gavin Williamson, who recently argued that mobile phones should be banned from use during the school day.
“The fact that children don’t do what children supposedly did 25, 30 years ago is something to be recognised, and you’ve got to teach them in a way that does engage with them," King says.
“So I have absolutely no problem, for example, with the use of mobile phones in the classroom. I just see this as a discipline matter, that the teacher needs to control that. But if you’re in a modern world, mobile phones and a good use of mobile phones is an essential skill to acquire.”
In his own subject – geography – this could mean pupils researching facts about Mount Everest, for example, although he acknowledges that technology use can be easier to manage in fee-paying schools.
Mobile phones: a ‘liberal’ approach
“If the dominant culture in the school is naturally one of structure and discipline, and focus on the learning experience, then curiously, you can be rather more liberal in the way in which you can manage things like mobile technology.
“You don’t need to ban the use of it, but if you see a child walking down a corridor and they’re on their mobile phone, you either take it off them because it’s not an appropriate time to use it or you give them one warning and then out – it’s dead easy to do,” he says.
“I can see it’s more challenging for those schools that perhaps draw on a catchment area where, traditionally, there hasn’t been great value placed on education and you’ve got more of a challenge to authority likely to come – perhaps you’ve got to adopt a rather more draconian approach,” he adds.
But he says: “I think that using technology where children are adept at using it – mobile phones, access to the internet – can enhance the experience children can have, as long as the person stood up in front and leading the lesson gives the children confidence that they have, personally, a knowledge base that is really strong in their subject.”
He adds that often, boarding schools in particular can enforce rules through consensus – pupils in houses will ask teachers or pastoral leaders for help managing their internet use, and requests to switch off the broadband in the evenings come from the children themselves.
He says: “I don’t understand when a parent says ‘I can’t stop them being on their tablet at two in the morning’ – yes you can, it’s simple, and it’s part of the education of the children, bringing the children up. Schools can do it, and boarding schools can do it very effectively, working with the children. But that is a million miles away from saying, ‘Thou shalt not use that technology’.”
King’s own pathway into teaching and then headship came about through being inspired by one of his own teachers – he jokes that this makes him something of a cliché – who championed multimedia learning. His geography teacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School in Bristol was “a breath of fresh air,” and the “best teacher at my school by a country mile”, resulting in King discovering a passion for the subject.
“He brought the subject to life, alive,” he says. “A really great teacher brings their anecdotes to it, and you don’t think ‘this is a teacher who is polishing their own ego in front of you’, you find those anecdotes interesting, fascinating, you want to engage with it and have similar experiences. And I think before, in general, it was in widespread use, he was somebody who would use multimedia within the classroom, really engaging approaches that would grab a young adolescent,” he recalls.
This approach was in contrast with an otherwise overtly traditional pedagogy – he laments that, when it came to the teaching of modern foreign languages, his school taught rote questions and phrases in French – a “dry, stale” style of learning which left him able to read signs in the language but not much else.
As a headteacher, he was therefore always looking for candidates who had a full command of their subject and could use this to inspire confidence in pupils.
“If a teacher complains that children won’t sit still in the class, or listen to the teacher and focus on written exercises, my answer to that is there’s a problem with the teacher,” he says.
But although King now heads up an association of prep schools, he has only recently focused on this area of education. Following a brief stint in the water industry, he undertook a PGCE and then worked as a geography teacher in senior schools before rising through the ranks of senior management. He was head of Leicester Grammar School (LGS) for 17 years. LGS had a junior school and, in due course, took over another prep school that was due to close.
By the end of his tenure, King was running a foundation of schools comprising just under 1,500 pupils, which led to his interest in the management of prep schools.
The Duke of Edinburgh
He has spent all of his career in the independent sector and says this partly stemmed from his passion for the outdoors.
“I wanted a school that had a wider offer and I found a home in the independent sector I suppose,” he says.
“I was that guy who could offer sport and other things, I could climb a mountain, I could take Duke of Edinburgh groups out.” Indeed, he led expeditions for the award over a period of 40 years.
And King has some amusing anecdotes about meeting the late Duke of Edinburgh through the scheme.
“I was tasked to accompany the Duke of Edinburgh around the school and we were due to begin with the national anthem. We went into the main assembly hall and he leant over to me, and said ‘I hope we’re not going to have that second verse, it’s interminable.”
The Queen, whom King has also met, is “remarkably short and talks very quietly”, so that in photographs with Her Majesty, “I look as if I’m some kind of hunchback, I’m always bent over double”.
It is clear from speaking with him how much importance he places on outdoor education and pursuits – he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and is “halfway through a Munro bagger” [Munros are mountains over 3,000 feet high in Scotland; Munro bagging is to climb all of them]. His three adult sons have also joined him on jaunts in the wild.
He describes himself as an “all-rounder”, saying: “I guess from the days of school, I always used to win prizes for being the best all-rounder, which I sometimes have thought was to be damned by faint praise. But now I think it’s best that I am that kind of person. Many geographers are, I think, interested in lots of different things.”
This interest in a wide range of subjects is reflected in King’s commitment to a holistic view of the sector. He is determined that when parents look at his schools, they see innovation and excitement.
‘High quality and accessible’
As well as a focus on innovation, King is also keen that the sector he heads up is accessible to pupils from a wide variety of backgrounds.
He spent his teaching career in independent schools before taking the helm at IAPS, a schools association made up of 670 leading prep schools worldwide, in 2018. However, he did not attend prep school himself – he was a beneficiary of the direct grant scheme in Bristol, which enabled pupils to attend fee-paying senior schools through government financial assistance.
He says this has always made him appreciative of how a “high quality education” and the ability to access it must go together. “That’s two of the things that I’ve been committed to trying to provide all the way through my professional career.”
Private schools are routinely criticised as being socially elitist, and King says he would be keen to see the government embrace new approaches to widen the net of who can attend them. One might be a voucher scheme – an idea he raised last year at IAPS’ annual conference – and he says that some of the issues surrounding past schemes, such as government-funded assisted places and their possible manipulation by the middle class, would be “well within the wit of anybody” to resolve.
“We could have a scheme that could have much greater social mobility. And the idea is simply that the government contribution would be no more than the sum that it spends on children, on average, in state schools currently. And if the fee charged by the school was greater than that, then the fee would have to be made up by the school,” he says. “And there would be widespread general uptake on that within the sector straightaway.”
He adds: “In the myths and legends that surround independent school education, there’s the belief that it’s for the toffs and for the wealthy elite. Actually, schools try really hard to have a much more diverse intake into their schools.”
Bursaries could ‘take a knock’
He adds: “I worry about the financial ability [of private schools] to support, in the next 12 months or so, children with the bursaries and scholarships that they’ve traditionally provided. So that’s going to take a knock, I suspect, in many cases. But if the government opened up a serious dialogue about a voucher scheme, there would be instant and widespread interest in taking it up.”
Such an approach might perhaps create a more balanced intake at independent schools. King acknowledges that private school cohorts can be polarised – made up of the children of high earners, whose families can afford rising fees, and pupils on 90 per cent or full bursaries from lower-income families.
“There’s a group who would like their children to go…but know that they really can’t afford it. And because fees have gone up, we’ve grown that group in the middle.”
“For want of a better way of putting it, the middle-class middle earners are not so prominent in the schools as perhaps they used to be,” he adds.
But King says he is committed to the idea of more diversity in the sector, not just among its pupils but also when it comes to teachers and senior leaders. As head of IAPS, he is aware of how many people view prep schools and independents as somewhat archaic, and he feels that much of this comes down to a need for better “messaging” from sector organisations.
In terms of the schools’ pupil bodies, he is adamant that these reflect the “demography of the country” – often more so than comprehensives in well-heeled leafy suburbs, where pupils are “primarily white”.
But he is aware of the need for more diversity among staff and teachers, especially when it comes to senior management. While around 40 per cent of IAPS headteachers are women, he acknowledges that the proportion of senior leaders from black and minority ethnic backgrounds is very low. He says that improving this is about “role models” for pupils, and that IAPS will be working with governing bodies to support black, Asian and minority ethnic teachers’ pathways into senior leadership.
The prep school sector has certainly shifted from the archetypal model of an all-through school up to age 13.
King says that just 142 of the 607 IAPS member schools are run on this basis, while more than 400 educate pupils up to age 11. Families now are keen for children to attend co-educational day schools rather than joining older public boarding schools – he says this model can make sense for two professional parents who might have one girl and one boy, in simplifying drop-offs and pick-ups. However, a small but growing number of prep schools are going “the other way”, expanding their offer up to age 16, so that pupils can sit GCSEs with a school that they and their families love before leaving for sixth form.
And, despite the pressures of the past year, he is sanguine about how schools in the sector have coped with undoubtedly rocky, unknown terrain.
Speaking to Tes just before schools returned from the summer holidays, he says that headteachers “are trying to project forward and plan for the rest of the year but, again, you meet certain uncertainty”.
He is conscious that in a sector like his own, parents expect a rich, holistic offer that includes school productions, end-of-term concerts and sports matches, all of which are difficult to deliver in a pandemic.
However, he says headteachers in the sector have been “pleasantly surprised” by the level of resilience shown by schools. In early 2020, the future of the private school sector seemed uncertain – as Tes reported at the time, it looked as though a large proportion of schools might go under, pushed over the edge by the pandemic. Forced to cut fees for parents suffering financial difficulties, while already struggling with a rise in staff pension contributions, things looked bleak for many schools. Perhaps unsurprisingly, King appears optimistic about the sector’s future now.
“It would be wrong of me to suggest that there isn’t a degree of apprehension about what the future will be...but that’s why everybody’s working hard to make sure they’ve got their procedures in place.”
He pauses to reflect. “Apprehension, but probably gathering momentum is the way I’d put it.”
It is clear from speaking to King that the sector, far from emulating Hogwarts, wants to be seen as embracing change.
“Getting the message out that our schools are relevant, are current, are innovating is what I’m engaged in,” he says.
2018 - present Chief executive of IAPS (Independent Association of Prep Schools).
2017-2018 Chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).
2001-2017 Headmaster and chief executive of Leicester Grammar School, Leicestershire.
1995-2001 Deputy head of Kimbolton School, Cambridgeshire.
1984-1997 Head of Geography, Rendcombe College, Gloucestershire.
1972-1975 MA, BA and PGCE at Durham University.
1965-1972 Queen Elizabeth's Hospital School, Bristol.