Two recent events served to underline one incontrovertible fact: King’s College is just a little bit bonkers. I would not have it any other way; a tinge of eccentricity is essential if one is to remain sane and cheerful in life. The first incident was one which happens annually and which, annually, I miss because I am away at the HMC conference. But I hear the stories and I see the pictures. It’s the St Francis’ Day Eucharist in our Chapel, to which pupils, staff and parents are invited to bring their pets to be blessed. I understand the Chapel was completely packed with creatures, human and otherwise, and the usual holy chaos reigned. You can find pictures on the facebook link on our website.
The second event is not, yet, an annual fixture, but I aim to make it so. It was last week’s weighing of the pumpkins. You may remember that last year I grew some of Dr Ogle’s special seeds and that a giant pumpkin appeared miraculously on the garden wall of the Headmaster’s garden. I harvested the seeds of that giant and distributed them to all and sundry, challenging the Houses to a pumpkin-growing competition. Last Tuesday, as part of the weekly school assembly, we paraded the various entries in front of the whole school. Father Mark was Chief Pumpkin and the idea was to use his bathroom scales (somehow) to find the winner. But in the end the gigantic entry from King Alfred was so obviously larger than all the others, including some decent offerings from Bishop Fox, Taylor, Carpenter, Dr Stone, Mr Speyer and Mr Biggs, that no weighing was necessary. Each entry was carried out by two (necessarily) burly prefects to rapturous applause. I was told by one colleague that another colleague had whispered in her ear: “only at King’s would we be clapping pumpkins.”
Those pumpkins became the centrepiece of the next day’s Harvest Festival service, during which each House brought up an offering of tinned and dried food to be donated to the local food bank.
The annual HMC conference, this year at Manchester, was not quite as much fun. The three days were somewhat overshadowed by the recent announcement from the Treasury that the contributions of employers to teachers’ pension funds was to increase dramatically – significantly more than any school had been expecting or had budgeted for. That decision is being challenged by various bodies, not least the Independent Schools Council to which, through our membership of HMC, we belong. We hope very much that the figure will be reduced to more manageable levels, but in any case we know that next year we will be landed with a serious increase in our salary bill. We will manage, of course, but it is galling, having only a few weeks ago congratulated all staff on such strong pupil numbers, to have to start talking about belt tightening.
And the increase in the pensions costs is not the only blow that might come the way of independent schools. There is talk of adding VAT to school fees and of removing business rate relief. For one reason or another both ends of the political spectrum seem to believe that independent schools are awash with privilege and cash and are ripe for plundering. The (possibly unintended, possibly not) consequence of all this squeezing could well be the demise of many schools in the sector, which would increase the government’s education budget by far more than the extra VAT etc would generate.
Also last week the ISC published the results of research carried out by Oxford Economics into the value of independent schools to the UK economy. Headline figures are as follows: It would cost the taxpayer an extra £3.5 billion per year if all independent school children were instead educated in state schools. Independent schools contribute £13.7 billion per year to UK GDP and support 303,000 jobs, generating £4.1 billion in tax revenue. Finally, it is estimated that, had independent schools ceased to exist in the late 1940s, the loss in average national educational attainment would have resulted in the annual GDP being £73 billion less than it was in 2017. A copy of the report, giving the full detail behind these headline results, can be found on the ISC website: www.isc.co.uk
Given the proven economic importance of the independent sector, along with the benefit it brings in terms of leading the way in educational thinking and standards, spreading the UK brand and influence overseas, bringing overseas income into the UK, supporting state schools through partnerships and providing a first-rate education through bursarial assistance for a great many children, it seems clear to me that the anti-independent school mood and rhetoric on both sides of the political divide is wholly irrational. We are just too easy a target – posh, rich private schools. No other country would treat one of its most successful, internationally-recognised, economically important brands in this way. The rest of the world holds UK independent education in the highest regard, but here we do not.
So if you have the ear of your local MP or local council member do please tackle them on this matter. We are a brilliant success story and should be supported, not clobbered.
Two weekends ago a group of our Royal Marines cadets took part in the annual Sir Steuart Pringle Trophy competition. There are, now, 20 schools in the UK honoured to have Royal Marines CCF sections. Every year all of these schools compete in an exacting test of skill and endurance at Lympstone, the RM training base. Speaking as the father of one of the contestants this year (and of another three years ago) I can confirm that it is an extraordinary commitment from the cadets involved. They are up most mornings at 6am for five weeks to practise their drill and other skills. They spend most Sundays training on Woodbury Common near Lympstone. It is a tough, tough ask – and of course their other commitments carry on as usual (not least on the academic side) – and they should all be warmly applauded simply for sticking at it. Our team came second overall, losing narrowly to Shrewsbury and winning one of the elements of the competition along the way. That is a wonderful success, and a credit to the eight boys and one girl, and to their training officers. The curious thing is that, now the competition is over, they genuinely miss it. I had expected Oliver to be relieved when it was all over, but he is bereft. Odd creatures, teenagers.
One week to go before half term. Where has the first half of term gone? I wish you all a very happy and restful King Alfred Holiday!