Hurlingham Prep School head Simon Gould calls for prep schools to embrace a more egalitarian era
Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the past year, school leaders – like all those in positions of responsibility – have been tested in ways they never have before. As a new head of a large, co-ed prep school in London, finding a pathway through the pandemic has been challenging.
It has been a period like no other, yet as we start to come out the other side, it is clear that each challenge has also brought with it new opportunity. Our schools have been required to act quickly, to adapt, adopt and practise new routines overnight; they absorbed the need for change with enthusiasm and bravery. I believe we are gifted a golden opportunity to pause, reflect and reset; to draw from it the chance to craft a new progressive strategic plan to move forwards.
The prep school market is currently in a state of flux. The pandemic has prompted many families to re-evaluate and look at their lives through a different lens. With the viability of working from home now proven to be a very real option for many people, a considerable number of families have taken the decision to uproot and swap the fast pace of city life for the rural idyll. Others have been prompted to do things differently, either as a result of changes to circumstance or by the spotlight the pandemic has shone on the wealth and privilege disparities that exist so starkly within our society.
Independent education, and especially the prep schools within it, must be alive to the changes afoot. Prep schools, especially in the cities, can no longer trade on established reputations and the reassurance that if parents have money, they will automatically opt for the local independent school without even considering their options.
State school at four years old is an attractive option for many, and not just because of the financial saving. We are, and quite rightly so, being forced to look at what we offer to ensure it is a more than credible alternative; one that makes clear its intent to add value and one which can be held to account. The prep school model is still strong and one that is undoubtedly a fabulous springboard, but it must evolve.
The first step on this journey is to listen, and I mean really listen. The mindset must shift; we must now reflect the communities we serve and engage with parents, not as the customer, not as those people who judge us from the other side of the wall see us, but as part of the team, as a genuine partner in their child’s development.
At Hurlingham, we are clear in our objective to offer ‘more than just a school’; we recognise, and indeed welcome the challenge to go beyond the traditional prep education, to be more outward-facing. We are working to establish a central learning hub that reaches out to all families and speaks to the expertise and diversity of our local community, to grow cultural capital and embed a sense of social responsibility.
By nurturing partnerships with other local schools, sharing practice and initiating dialogue, we aim to make a positive contribution to the experiences of all. This must include a consideration for parents that see this new imagined future as an attractive proposition but, due to their financial situation, are prevented from applying.
Ultimately, it will be the children who are the long term benefactors of such an approach. Through this vital collaboration and modelling, they will learn to have a voice, to express their opinion and learn from each other. Prep school heads must now work to transmit a clear message that they are open to change, ready to listen and committed to securing a new relevance in an increasingly scrutinised sector, so that they lead schools that our pupils are proud to attend.
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