After Balkan warlords, bring on the heads

30th May 2008 at 01:00
The new man at the helm of the Independent Schools Council does not mince his words
The new man at the helm of the Independent Schools Council does not mince his words

Within the next 30 years, pupils will be downloading information straight into their brains instead of learning it in a classroom.

That is not the view of a wacky futurologist, but the considered opinion of the man at the helm of an organisation that represents the most formal schools in the country: the Independent Schools Council (ISC).

Chris Parry has been in post as the new chief executive for less than a month but, fittingly for a former naval officer, he is already creating a few waves. In his previous role at the Ministry of Defence, it was his job to predict the future on a whole range of domestic and global issues for the Government.

In his new post, Mr Parry is committed to opening the eyes of private schools to what is coming, and preparing them to face it.

"Within 30 years, sitting down and learning something will be a thing of the past," he told The TES.

"I think people will be able to directly access, Matrix-style, all the vocabulary you need for a foreign language, leaving you just to clear up the grammar. It's a very short route from wireless technology to actually getting the electrical connections in your brain to absorb that knowledge," he said.

The independent education sector revels in its position to innovate with qualifications. But this is far from the kind of visionary predictions coming from its new public voice.

Mr Parry, who rose through the ranks of the Navy to become a Rear Admiral, has a sideline academic career in strategic forecasting - deciding what the big issues will be in the world in the coming years.

In the past, he has been involved in frontline operations in the Gulf and the Falklands, among other international postings. The parallels with independent education might not be immediately apparent, but he is sure his experience will stand him in good stead.

He said: "People have said to me, 'How are you going to deal with these heads?'. I say, 'I've sat down with Afghan tribesmen and Balkan warlords - I think I'll be all right with a few headteachers, as long as they leave their knives and guns at the door.'"

Mr Parry wants to modernise the independent sector and encourage it to speak with one voice through the ISC, especially as it responds to perceived threats from the Charity Commission over public benefit tests. He does not want each of the associations, including the powerful Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, pursuing their own agendas.

"Getting everyone to go the same way on the same day can be a struggle," he conceded. "We have some rogue elephants that are determined to range all over the plain. But the armed forces are full of alpha males and females, so dealing with them in the education sector is something I'm looking forward to."

The ISC represents the UK's main independent schools associations and more than 1,280 fee-charging schools, which educate half a million pupils.

At its annual conference next week, Mr Parry will set out his plans in more detail.

Once properly marshalled, he believes private schools should be increasingly influential on the national education stage. "You have a revolutionary core in independent schools that can transform the whole of the education community," he said.

"The private sector will stay about the same size, but independence as a concept could take over all schools.

"We have to get our DNA outthere, and that means giving independence to people with the expertise to run education."

It should be clear that Mr Parry is not a man to mince his words. He has already made his debut in front of the Commons' children, schools and families committee, sparking a row when he criticised the quality of state education as too poor for his own children.

"From me, you will get a straight answer. I'm not in the business of dressing things up," he said.

"There is too much hype and hypocrisy in a lot of processes, and a little bit of honesty will help lubricate the system somewhat."


Chris Parry was educated at Portsmouth Grammar School and read modern history at Jesus College, Oxford. He joined the Royal Navy after university and went on to command the destroyer HMS Gloucester.

From 2001 he was responsible to ministers for assessing the operational capability of the armed forces. He was appointed a CBE in 2004. On promotion to Rear Admiral in 2005, he spent three years in charge of determining the future strategic context for defence.

Married with two children, he is a fan of rugby league and a supporter of Chelsea FC.

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