Conferences overseas might seem like a very positive perk of my job, and in many ways they are, but when so much time (and energy) is spent travelling to far flung conference venues, we have to feel that the investment has been worth it – both in time and financial terms. My most recent conference, in Manchester, allowed me to connect with friends and former colleagues in the HMC, the Head Masters and Head Mistresses Conference, which represents some 280 or so high quality international schools both in the UK and overseas.
The HMC is traditionally seen as the voice of the independent sector in the UK, representing schools that are world renown, such as Eton, Harrow and Rugby as well as many other less well known, but sometimes equally impressive, schools in various parts of the country. The organisation includes over 50 international schools and this is a growing division, as many UK schools set up franchise schools around the world, most notably in the Middle East and China.
Our divisional meeting, of heads of international schools within HMC comprises an eclectic mix; established schools like our own (and the other Latin American school, the Grange, from Chile) both have long histories and traditions, which stretch back decades. Alongside us are the ‘newbies’; schools which have recently opened in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and which have a ‘mother ship’ back home. Schools represent countries as diverse as India and Switzerland, Qatar and Malaysia, Australia and France. The growth of new schools with English language (often British) curriculums is something that has been quite incredible in the last decade and remains a discussion point not just for the international division but also for the membership in general; how will the association maintain its standards? UK schools are all required to be inspected by the same inspectorate, against the same standards – this is not possible for a number of reasons in different areas of the world; how can the association ensure that accounting standards and governance and financial processes are maintained? UK schools in the group are all charities, with a specific set of accounting regulations – whilst there are a whole host of ownership and governance models in overseas schools, with many of them being profit-making enterprises – something that does not fit with the HMC model. Trying to fit different shaped pegs in to an HMC hole seems quite a challenge and our discussion on this topic was very animated.
Speakers at the conference are always designed to catch our attention and give us some ‘takeaways’. Dame Rachel de Souza CEO of the Inspiration Trust was a great speaker. With her brand of disruptive education, but based on the firmest of positive principles, she has done great work, it seems, in improving pupils’ chances in tough schools in the east of England. I liked her direct approach, no-nonsense and straight talking; and her focus on appointing the strong and charismatic senior leaders to take her schools forward.
We also heard from a voice that anyone of a certain age in the UK would recognise – BBC newsreader, Michael Buerk. He most famously brought to the consciousness of the nation the plight of hundreds of thousands of starving East Africans in the 1984 famine which led to the first international celebrity efforts to raise money and put an end of poverty and starvation in Ethiopia. The footage and images that he brought into our living rooms quite literally changed the world. Michael was there in Manchester, however, not to talk about poverty but to be a ‘grumpy old man’! He got the tone of the conference just right, asking us all to consider the entitled lives of millennials, and what we can do to help to focus on what is important in our schools. His light-hearted approach was both fun and thought provoking – often the best kind of speaker.
In amongst the keynotes we had panels on teaching and learning and pastoral care, drugs awareness, and workshops on taking your school brand overseas, or being an executive head in a group of schools. In addition, a new video on digital awareness was revealed which has been made in partnership with HMC. This video sends a message to try and harness the positives of social media and digital tools – rather than a down right ‘don’t do it’ message, which we know that our children are probably going to ignore. I encourage you to watch it with your children and discuss the message which it contains and any questions that are raised from it.
More important than all of these things, though, is the opportunity to network and connect, and to try new things. I always enjoy meeting up with old friends and colleagues and this year I attended my first ever football match – watching Manchester United draw to Valencia at Old Trafford. Well worth it (and the fish and chips were delicious!).