It all started with a cricket ball. Back in 1892, a group of prep school Heads got together to agree the terms of fair play for prep school cricket. By the end of the meeting, they had touched upon other topics and so agreed to meet again. At the second meeting, more Heads came along and discussion inevitably turned to matters of curriculum and the process of transfer from prep to senior schools. The Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) was born.
As a parent, the role and importance of IAPS is often not fully appreciated. After 125 years, it is worth reflecting on what IAPS means for the school at which your son or daughter attends. IAPS has helped shape that school into the first class institution it is today; indeed many of the qualities which made it stand out to you as a parent are the embodiment of what IAPS stands for today. The fact that the Headteacher of your child’s school is a member of IAPS represents a kite mark of quality for that school. Schools who are in membership of the Association have to meet rigorous and demanding inspection criteria. For the Head, as the leader of the school, their membership of IAPS gives them access to a broad network of support for their own mentoring and development throughout their careers. Put simply, Heads support their staff and IAPS supports their Heads.
‘Today, IAPS is – by any measure – the most successful it has ever been. Our schools are truly world-class, both in the UK and overseas,’ explains David Hanson, who became the first Chief Executive of IAPS in 2008, but will be stepping down at the end of this academic year. Prior to David's appointment, IAPS was managed by a General Secretary, with just 13 people holding the post since its formation. If you view all the schools in membership together, ‘IAPS UK’ collectively employs 34,000 staff and contributes more than £3bn per year to the UK economy. From its relatively modest beginnings 125 years ago, IAPS has grown significantly. It has weathered two world wars and numerous recessions, as well as many political threats to the sector’s survival. But it has seen its most significant changes in the last decade. This has been a considerable period of change, reflective of the changes taking place in schools, and driven by a need for greater professionalisation, improved standards and the demands of parents.
‘Ten years ago, we asked ourselves the question: what are we here for?’ explains David Hanson. ‘And it was a clear answer – we are a force for good in education. And so we set about making that our touchstone. It’s a belief that is underpinned by all our core values of respect, service, compassion, aspiration, independence and integrity. It made us change the way we looked at the world. We made it a priority to engage with government and to engage with the wider community. I did not want the organisation where I had become Chief Executive to be an inward looking, self-serving golf club! We needed to change our outlook and be a force for good.’
IAPS schools provide a challenging and purposeful education which puts pupils on the path for future success. It sows the seeds of intellectual curiosity giving pupils the opportunity to realise talents and harness their abilities. It is an education in every sense – not just about examinations. It is also about instilling the right values. ‘At IAPS, we understand that a high quality education is a privilege and with that comes responsibility’, says David Hanson. ‘At the heart of it, we believe in education for social responsibility and we take this seriously. We actively promote and develop the attitudes, values and behaviours that enable our young people to become valuable and constructive members of society. It doesn’t happen by accident. Our core values were informed by our Christian heritage and they still shape everything we do in lAPS today.’
Looking back at the 125-year history of the Association, you would assume that independent education has only recently been a matter of significant political debate. Ironically, it faced its biggest challenge back in 1973, at a time when Britain was just joining the then EEC. The Labour Party made it their policy to destroy independent education and wanted to make fee-paying for education illegal. At the IAPS Heads' Conference for that year, Roy Hattersley MP, the Labour Party Spokesman for Education, was asked to speak and he criticised the sector for being socially divisive. The process for abolition, he explained, would be by taxation and by demanding a very high standard for ‘recognition’, compelling many schools to close; those that remained would face legislation prohibiting the charging of fees for education – or even an Act of Parliament forcing all parents to send their children to maintained schools.
The Chairman of IAPS, Alan Mould, responded as follows: ‘Mr Hattersley. We are grateful for the honesty, the clarity and the fullness with which you have told us of your party’s plans for us. I am sure it is important that we should have heard what you had to say: in any case, it is helpful to know how one is going to die… You said, Mr Hattersley, that you did not expect to be carried out shoulder high and you were right – but I think you may get a standing ovation – for your proposals are so exclusively destructive and so illiberal that they must – in the present spirit of this country – assure you a comfortable seat on the Opposition benches for a long time to come.’ The written account of the Conference reported that ‘these remarks were well received by the delegates. It was like the warm glow after a particularly cold bath.’ Thankfully, these proposals never became a reality.
Successive governments have failed to work properly with independent schools. In the run-up to the general election, the sector was again an easy target and faced the threat of business rates and the burden of VAT being imposed on fees. Were this to happen, hard-working parents would undoubtedly be priced out of independent education. Independent schools would become truly exclusive and therefore irrelevant, serving just a very small, rich niche of parents. I asked David Hanson what he felt a future government should do: ‘They might get pennies off us by squeezing us hard but they could get pounds off us if they worked with us. We could save the Treasury billions if they embraced the private sector. Why is education the last bastion where we have a problem with the private sector? The sector should be at least twice the size it is – from 7% to 15% and onwards – and everybody who can afford should pay fees but get means-tested tax relief in return.’
The result of the general election has meant that the immediate threats to independent schools have retreated. But the mindset from all parties to look at independent schools as a competitor rather than a partner is entrenched. 'It will change eventually,’ responds David Hanson. ‘You can’t keep saying we need to learn from Finland, Singapore, or other high performing economies because, guess what they all have in common? Two things. Firstly, they don’t obsess about tests and assessment. And secondly, they have a much larger engaged and government-supported private sector. I think it is a tragedy that this Government has chosen not to embrace our suggestions for widening access. It would save the taxpayer money and standards would rise.’
Whilst IAPS has changed significantly in the last decade, so has the role of the Headteacher. You might see the Head of your school as a teacher but today’s prep Heads are the CEOs of small to medium-sized enterprises. Parents tend not to look at schools as companies but they are significant employers and – despite often being not-for-profit charitable enterprises – they must still operate as rigorously as any agile small company. They are complex organisations to run with extensive compliance regulations – including for health and safety – and regular, demanding school inspections. Headship is a stressful and, at times, lonely job. Spare a moment for the Head of your child's school. They have ultimate responsibility for the school’s development plans, which need fundraising and careful financial management, and they need to win new business – attract pupils – and make sure that their product is one which parents want to buy. It’s competitive and stressful. Governors are the board but the Head is CEO.
I asked David Hanson what sort of skills today’s prep school leaders require: ‘Prep school Heads need two very important qualities. Firstly, you have to be someone who can drive others to better or higher things. The truly great Heads are those who create the time and space for strategic thinking. They are responsible for setting the tone, the direction, and the future of the school. The second thing all Heads need is a quality shared by the greatest leaders – an amazing ability to articulate, in simple language, an alluring and appealing possibility. They need to convince staff: we can do this. That’s what inspires and motivates all those in the school. It’s about vision – not charisma; not gravitas. It’s about being able to know and describe that possibility. President Obama famously articulated his vision in just three words – 'Yes We Can' – and it’s that skill which Heads need.’
And what about the future of IAPS? What does the next decade hold for the Association? 'We are here and we do what we do because we all believe that there is no greater mission than education,’ replies David Hanson. ‘We believe that as teachers and leaders in schools and as an Association, IAPS should be a force for good. This clear understanding of what we are and what we are here for will shape our future direction. Above all else, it explains why we have endured – and it will be our defining legacy.’
IAPS Chief Executive David Hanson was talking to Attain’s Editor, Matthew Smith.