When Julie Robinson visited a preparatory school for the first time, her overriding feeling was one of alarm. “I walked into a room and, firstly, there were only about 20 pupils – and they all stood up,” says the comprehensive-educated general secretary of the Independent Schools Council.
“I’d just done quite a tough teacher training experience in a school near Milton Keynes, so the fact that all these children were standing up made me think, ‘What’s happening? What are they going to do? Are they going to riot?’” She laughs at how absurd this might sound.
Today she is the confident leader of an organisation that has helped the independent sector to win a constructive agreement on the encouragement of more partnerships with state schools. The deal is a world away from the sabre-rattling and threats to charitable status emanating from the Department for Education less than two years ago.
Robinson had absolutely no experience of the independent sector when she first turned up at Ardingly College Junior School, in West Sussex, for a job interview. She remembers how, at the end of a mock lesson during the interview process, a boy stood up to remind her to set some homework. “I thought, ‘What kind of culture is this, where the children are so…helpful?’ I couldn’t believe what a lovely environment it was.”
It’s not as if her own experience as a state school pupil in leafy Sussex was particularly tough. She has fond memories of looking after the guinea pigs at her “nurturing” primary school, and recalls being taught Shakespearian insults by her “live-wire” English teacher at the local comprehensive.
But, in contrast to the schools where she spent her entire teaching career, she was taught in classes of 38 pupils, in an environment where exotic extracurricular trips involving scuba diving and skiing were firmly off the menu.
Robinson admits that her move into the independent sector, and ascendance to the top of an organisation – which represents more than 1,200 private schools and includes seven separate private schools’ associations, including the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference – was entirely accidental.
After studying English language and literature with psychology at the University of Birmingham, she snubbed her school careers adviser’s idea of becoming a driving instructor, instead setting her sights on teaching.
And, feeling torn between a desire to teach adolescents (“I really relate to the 12-year-old sense of humour”) and younger children, her eyes were drawn to the job at Ardingly’s prep school, which caters for boys and girls aged 3-13. “You didn’t have to choose between primary and secondary, and I loved that,” she says. Landing the job meant working at a school with extensive sports facilities – a dream fit for the sports-mad Robinson, who spends much of her free time running, swimming and practising yoga, and who even helps her staff to build their core strength through daily “plank sessions” in the ISC office. Or, at least, she would be doing that, if it weren’t for the skiing accident that has left her hobbling around with a crutch for the next few months.
Robinson, who swam competitively as a child and later at university, ran the swimming club at Ardingly. “In a traditional prep school, it’s expected that you’ll do some sport, and some other clubs, and an evening boarding duty,” she says. “And we were lucky to have an indoor pool.”
She refers to swimming as her “family sport”; both her parents ran local swimming clubs and her ex-accountant mother is a former county champion. When her parents married, the local paper ran the headline “Team captains wed” – and, now in their seventies, the couple are still at it, running a swimming club for people with disabilities.
The bright side
High energy seems to be a genetic trait; Robinson is decidedly bouncy, both physically – you barely notice the crutch until she points it out – and verbally, in the way she scatters her speech with words like “optimistic”, “amazing” and “exciting”. And she’s generous in her praise of other education figures who she counts as fellow optimists, including the Association of School and College Leaders’ general secretary, Geoff Barton; ISC chairman Barnaby Lenon; and outgoing national schools commissioner Sir David Carter.
Robinson feels that being upbeat, and encouraging people to do their best, is a vital part of both teaching and leading. “Teachers work really hard but you’re in it together, and encouraging each other is what makes a great school,” she says.
It was only through the encouragement of a senior colleague that she decided, aged 31, to tentatively – and successfully – apply to become Ardingly’s head of junior school.
And she sees it as her duty to help others – especially women – to step into senior leadership roles. “It’s 2018, we’ve got a female PM, the Queen is triumphant, you’ve got Angela Merkel; it feels in some ways like women are taking over the world – and yet there’s still this sense that women are less likely to apply for the leadership jobs,” she says. “Maybe I was a bit like that, and just needed that encouragement and nurturing. I didn’t ever really believe I could be a headmistress of a school.”
Robinson refers to a DfE study that found that women often worry about ticking every single box in a job description – in contrast to their male peers. “I think possibly it comes back to the classroom, where the girl won’t be quite sure – so she won’t put her hand up and offer an answer – whereas the boy will put his hand up before he’s even really thought through the question,” she says.
She is a strong advocate of mentoring and is proud to have supported “three or four women” to become headteachers.
In her own career, she moved from Ardingly to become head of Vinehall Prep School in Sussex – another co-ed prep school with boarding pupils, but without a senior school attached to it. “I wanted my own school – a freestanding school that wasn’t part of a bigger organisation,” she says. She found this to be an intensely rewarding, albeit emotionally demanding, experience. “When you’re in a boarding school, and you live there, you’re living at work.
“What happens is the highs are really high. But the lows are pretty low; one of the last duties I had was speaking at a funeral for a pupil who’d had brain cancer.”
After eight years at Vinehall, she craved a broader role, so moved to the Independent Association of Prep Schools, where she stayed for five years before taking up her current job.
In her time at the ISC, there have been three education secretaries – she is yet to meet Damian Hinds – and she has seen lots of political change. She welcomes the softening in tone of last week’s Department for Education announcement on independent and state school partnership working, compared with the “harsh” language that has been directed at her sector in the recent past.
Robinson, as ever, is optimistic about the DfE setting up a “System Partnerships Unit” to broker relationships between the sectors.
“What we didn’t like at the beginning was this sense that it was to be enforced, threatened,” she says. “As it has played out over the last year, with the development of the SPU, it seems that we’re all looking from both sides, to try to find ways where practically we can make this happen.”
However, she bristles at the mention of former education secretary Justine Greening’s suggestion that employers should discriminate against old Etonians in favour of job candidates with the same grades from under-performing schools (bit.ly/EtonGreen).
“School type is not a proxy for social advantage,” she says. Some parents, she adds, “spend more on their house [to get into the catchment area of an ‘outstanding’ state school] than they would on fees at some of the schools: that’s the segregation, [it’s] not caused by our little sector, so it’s a shame.”
And she expresses frustration at what she sees as a prevailing “anti-privilege mood”, saying that it is more important to work together than to engage in battle. She points out: “We’ve got some small schools that share the local academy’s swimming pool because they don’t have one – it works both ways.”
Tackling the “lazy caricature” of independent schools as “old-fashioned and full of one type of child” is something she sees as a big remaining challenge for her, and the ISC.
After all, Robinson says, there isn’t even one type of independent school leader. “For someone like me to end up representing this sector … that wouldn’t be possible if it really did correspond to the stereotype.”