Kenneth Durham: 'To develop and flourish, pupils need choice'

Michael Gove might have thought he could count on some cheerleading from the the new chairman of the independent schools' organisation. But Kenneth Durham has a bone or two to pick with the Education Secretary, he tells Richard Garner

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Kenneth Durham comes from a school with a strong liberal tradition. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise to find him critical of the Government's new English Baccalaureate as too restrictive for pupils. He is also worried that the Government's review of A-levels will come up with proposals harping back to a mythical "golden era" that never existed.

Mr Durham, who is the new chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference – the body that represents 250 of the country's elite, traditionally boys-only schools, is headmaster of University College School in the centre of Hampstead, north-west London.

It is, he surmises, probably the only school to have it laid down in the statute books that there should be no religious ceremony conducted at the school. That has survived the decades – as has the decision not to have school on a Saturday morning, another factor that marks UCS out as different to some of its fellow HMC independent schools.

He has been head of the school for 15 years and says of the job: "It's said that dogs become like their owners – perhaps that's what's happened to me while I've been here."

He relishes the fact that being head of UCS allows him to live in a part of London where the arts scene flourishes and where he is within easy reach of the London theatre scene and museums and art galleries. "The school has a liberal ethos," he says. "It is a pretty high-performing academic school, but with a liberal approach to education."

Which is how we get on to the Government's flagship English Baccalaureate – introduced into exam league tables for the first time this year as a yardstick to measure schools by. "The liberal philosophy is completely at odds with the English Baccalaureate," he said. "The curriculum should offer as much choice as possible. The students should follow the path that allows them to develop and flourish."

Under the EBacc, as it has been called for short, students only qualify for it if they have an A* to C grade pass at GCSE in maths, English, a foreign language, science and a humanities – history or geography.

"We don't require everybody to do history or geography, we don't make them do a balanced science programme – we're completely at odds with that," he says. "I can see where they're coming from and I don't just want to be snooty from the sidelines, but a lot of what we provide here actually gives the students a very good and well-balanced programme. For instance, it might actually be better for some students to concentrate on creative subjects."

He is, he says, quite lucky not to have that gnawing feeling that he ought to be following the Government's latest initiative in order to do well in exam league tables – a feeling that many in the state sector have.

UCS is a day school in London. It has just opened a pre-prep school with 120 pupils so that it now caters for young people from the age of three to 18. In all, it has just over 1,200 pupils It is all boys from 11 to 16 but co-educational in the sixth-form.

Its parents mostly come from the Finchley, Barnet, Hendon, Hampstead and Islington area around the school. "There are a few souls from beyond the M25 but not many," he says. It relaxes school uniforms for its pupils in the sixth form.

Mr Durham took over as chairman of the HMC at the beginning of the new school year earlier this month and will be presiding over the organisation's annual conference in St Andrew's, Scotland, next month. His wife, Vivienne, is also a headteacher. She is in charge at Frances Holland School in Baker Street in nearby Marylebone and a member of the Girls' School Association.

One of the themes Mr Durham hopes to put across during his year at the helm is stressing that the independent sector has a key role in shaping the future of education in the UK.

"One of the things I want to keep plugging away at is to get away from the old-fashioned image of the independent sector being a repository for social privilege," he says. "It is an important, successful, distinctive and interesting part of the social scene." "We're not just a funny little annex to UK education. We have the opportunity that independence gives us to be innovative and distinctive. Independence should not just be seen as a way of rich people buying themselves privilege."

He believes the independent sector has developed closer links with state schools in the past decade. "I don't think you'd find one HMC school that didn't have any links with neighbouring state schools," he says. In UCS's case, it is involvement with one of the Government's flagship academies in Westminster that is at the fore of its links. "I'm on their advisory board and some of our students go down there on a weekly basis," he said.

The main help he believes UCS can offer is to give them help to prepare for higher education."All of our students go on to higher education," he says, "so we are well practised in the business of advising students on higher education. It is something where we've been able to raise their ambitions to think about higher education."

The link with the academy, though, is a two-way process. The technology available at the academy is better than that at UCS.

UCS is also involved, jointly with its neighbouring independent school, Highgate School, in putting on summer schools for local primary-aged children from state schools in Haringey and Camden.

Some would argue that the changes in the law regarding charitable status have concentrated the minds of independent schools wonderfully when it comes to developing links with the state sector. However, Mr Durham believes the rapprochement would have happened anyway. Certainly, Labour during its recent years in office developed a friendlier approach to the independent sector, providing cash for developing links with state schools – a far cry from the days when it was open warfare between the party and the higher echelons of the independent sector.

"I think we gain a lot from working with the maintained sector," Mr Durham says. "It isn't just prompted by fear of the Charity Commission."

Another theme that will dominate the year is the reform of A-levels set up by the Government. Here again, Mr Durham professes to some concerns. "There is an awful lot of very good educational work going on in A-level classes all around the country," he said. "I think there is an awful lot of wrong-headedness going on here, too, though. The debate seems to focus on when the assessment takes place rather than the value of the assessment and the quality of the assessment. Some people like to approach a subject a bit at a time and that can be a very, very good thing for learning. My concern is about how much assessment happens and how good that assessment is."

He also bemoans the lack of open-ended questions in A-levels, which restricts the student's ability to develop critical thinking skills. That, he believes, is because they are harder to mark. "I'm slightly nervous about the review," he confesses. "This is unkind of me because I could be quite wrong, but I worry it might hark back to comparisons with halcyon days of the so-called gold standard of the 1970s and 1980s. I'm not sure that would be an advance or an improvement."

The sheer volume of assessment for the exam, he believes, is associated with the number of errors that crept into papers this year, which has already led to an investigation into what occurred being set up by Ofqual, the independent exams watchdog.

His school has actually stuck with the A-level, only using the new Pre-U alternative (based on the traditional model of end-of-year exams) for history of art,

All in all, though, his agenda does not add up to a ringing endorsement of all things coalition. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, might have expected a more glowing reception for his reforms from the sector whose DNA he wants to pinch to improve standards in the state sector.

It will be interesting to see whether the reservations held by independent school heads such as Mr Durham have any influence on the way the Government's reforms are developed.

That, though, will not become clear until the review of A-levels is concluded over the next year.

Conference call

It used to be so easy to describe the Headmasters' Conference – it represented 250 of the country's most elite private boys' schools.

Now, though, almost all its members admit girls if not throughout the school then at least in the sixth form.

Nowadays, too, it has headmistresses in membership as well as headmasters, hence the change of name to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

It was first started in 1869, when the then-headmaster of Uppingham School in Rutland, Edward Thring, invited up to 70 of his fellow heads to meet at his house to consider forming it – 14 turned up. Every year since then, it has held an annual conference .

From those modest beginnings, it has now become a "don't miss" event for all its member schools' heads.

It now represents 250 of the country's leading independent schools, which used to be boys-only, if you want to define its membership.