Back to School: Education in 2020 – Henry Price – S3E15

We are Back to School this week on the Legally Speaking Podcast!

Schools have been a hot topic of conversation over recent months…

Our host Robert Hanna was  joined by Henry Price, the current Headmaster of Oakham School (Rob’s former school!), a British co-educational independent school with around 1000 pupils aged 10 to 18.

Henry discusses his inspiring journey to his second headship, and his views on the value of a 21st century education.

Henry shares:

  • His journey to headship at Oakham School.
  • The impact of COVID-19 on education.
  • This year’s A-Levels fiasco and legal action against Ofqual.
  • Mental Health awareness in schools.
  • How schools should measure success.
  • How independent schools can give back to the wider community. 


Robert Hanna (00:00):

Welcome to the Legally Speaking Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Hanna. This week, I’m honoured to be joined by Henry Price, the current and 31st Headmaster of Oakham School. My former school, Oakham School is a British co-educational independent school situated in the market town of Oakham in Rutland, which is the smallest County in the UK. With a school roll of around a thousand pupils aged from 10 to 18, Henry will be discussing his inspiring journey to achieving his second headship, now with Oakham. While sharing his views on the Valley of a 21st-century education, we will be discussing a wide range of topics ranging from the various governmental pressures on schools, and of course, touching on some of the interesting considerations related to the modern day COVID-19 education sector. So a very big welcome Henry!

Henry Price (00:54):

Thank you very much, Rob! It’s a pleasure to be here! I hope my story is inspiring! That might be a difficult word to live up to, but I’ll do my best.

Robert Hanna (01:01):

Well, before we go through all of that, we do have a customer icebreaker question on the Legally Speaking Podcast, which we ask to all of our guests. So on the scale of one to 10, 10 being very real, how real would you rate the reality hit TV series suits? And as a non lawyer, feel free to give an educated guess if you see what I did there.

Henry Price (01:26):

Well, I’ve never seen people look so smart – office politics must be some reality there. Some of the cases must be based on a sort of real basis, how anyone can ever be that slick and cool for that long? I really can’t believe… I’m going to go for a solid seven out of 10.

Robert Hanna (01:46):

There we go. A solid seven. So that’s a fair rating, but we will move forward because we must talk as we always like to all of our guests at the beginning. So I think you have an inspiring story. So tell us a bit about your background and life before Oakham School.

Henry Price (02:03):

I consider myself extremely privileged, Robert. That might be a word that we come back to later on in the podcast. This is my second year at Oakham School, an outstanding co-educational independent school. Prior to that, I’d done five years as Headmaster of Wellington School in Somerset, another wonderful school. I’ve had 13 years at Rugby as a housemaster, as Classics teacher and a few other things. I started at Sherbourne in Dorset. I had two years in Sydney. I’ve been extremely fortunate in the education I’ve had. I’m a father of four, a daughter, and three boys. I’ve got a fantastic wife, and you know, I consider myself extremely lucky, and I do think that good fortune also plays a real part in our journeys through life and I’m thankful for the good fortune I’ve had.

Robert Hanna (02:49):

Brilliant, and thanks so much for sharing that. So let’s sort of dig a bit deeper then in terms of independent schooling, what do you believe the value of independent schooling in the 21st century?

Henry Price (03:00):

I think it’s a really good question because I think there’s different perspectives to that value. So of course, as Head I’m thinking about prospective parents and current parents and the value I try to bring, and I think, although it’s a much overused word, I think holistic is very important still in education, or we’ve got to think that education lies both within the classroom and outside of it. I think the co-curriculum brings real value is a place where young boys and girls have experiences where they test themselves, they make friendships. I think those important soft skills that go on into the workplace, we talk about even work.

Henry Price (03:48):

We talk about individuality and taking risks and putting themselves in new scenarios. And I think the independence act, it does those things really well. And that’s, you know, outdoor education. We’ve just had a fantastic service weekend here at Oakham with boys and girls, even during COVID, out and about doing DOV, and more sport, the music, the trauma, debating, all the clubs – everything we do that pushes boys and girls, high things that really inspire them, to take them, to bring them new skills, I think is hugely valuable. To me still, I think all schools think carefully about individual pupils and I think schools like we care deeply about pastoral care about how we’re bringing up young boys and girls – not just what they’re learning, but the values and the ethos that they’re learning, that we support them through difficult times through bumps in the road. Um, but often it’s just a case of, of wise adults nudging teenagers, nudging them back on path or nudging them towards something that they might otherwise be reluctant to do.

Henry Price (04:56):

I mean, I could go on about this for ages, Rob, you know, the value of this sector, I think is a different question, which is, I believe that independent education is a huge part of the educational DNA of the UK. And we know that the education DNA of the UK has great global value and great global respect. And I think independent schools such as Oakham and hundreds of other great schools like us have provided innovation and ideas and partnership as well as producing some really fantastic boys and girls who go on to do great things in life and go on to make a difference. I’ll stop…

Robert Hanna (05:39):

Really well said, Henry. And just to pick out there, you mentioned sort of through difficult times. So we do have to talk about the unfortunate situation we’re living through at the moment with regards to COVID-19 how has that affected schools? Has it created numerous sort of health and safety issues? Just give us a bit of an insight into that.

Henry Price (05:56):

Well, it’s had a massive effect. So if we turn the clock back, closing the school back in March on a Friday afternoon, as we had to do, but I couldn’t have distance learning set up for the Monday morning. So that in a sense that’s changed one throughout that lockdown period, both one week at the end of the Easter term and throughout the summer term, ran a full program of lessons, activities where we could, but for me, the key thing was about connection and providing rhythm and routine and reassurance as well as learning. So I guess that’s one thing – it’s affected us in how we had to teach them, it’s still affecting us in how we have to teach now because we’re finding now kind of blended approach where most people’s already in school, but if they have to self-isolate and they need to access their lessons and teachers, the teacher, miss, some people do lessons in some people’s house.

Henry Price (06:53):

And if I said a year ago to staff and colleagues, this is what you’ve got to do. I think they would have been really shocked and yet doing it, and they’re doing it incredibly well. So that’s one thing it has affected schools financially because we gave back I think rightly so. We discounted our fees last term. And so that is a financial dent to the school. Of course we like lots of other businesses benefited from Furlough, and of course we were able to cut back costs, but nevertheless, that was still a significant financial adjustment that we had to make. And as we move forward, um, currently as I sort of look out the window at school running, yes, there are numerous health and safety issues. We are trying obviously really hard that staff keep a distance. I’ve just been to lunch and I’ve sat two meters away from colleagues. We have face masks on all around the campus, et cetera, when we’re eating and teaching and lessons, there’s markings everywhere, there’s hand sanitizer gel, everywhere you go. We’ve got pupils in bubbles. So if one person were to be diagnosed with COVID, then we can limit very quickly who else would need to self-isolate. It’s been a huge, huge piece of work and there are hundreds of things I haven’t even missed there.

Robert Hanna (08:13):

But thanks for giving us a sort of snapshot of how it has affected schools and yourselves. And it hasn’t been easy for you because we then need to talk about the A-Levels fiasco that resulted in a lot of legal action against Ofqual. A couple of questions: do you believe the government failed students? And does this open up schools Like Oakham to legal action even though the issue was with the Government?

Henry Price (08:35):

If I count over, just going to start with that slight side step and say something about governments and leadership, I don’t want to say, first of all, nothing I say is party-political in any way. I do have a great deal of sympathy for anyone trying to run anything at the moment, because we’re all in a kind of chain of waiting for other people to make decisions. And I think there are a lot of decisions which are made in good faith and it’s not always easy to see the impact or the mistake you’ve made until that’s happened. So I have a great deal of sympathy for the Government in numerous ways or anyone trying to run anything. Going back to the A-Level fiasco, I have sympathy there too for the government, because how do you square the circle of being fair? And this word fairness, and I see it at the moment, even in the latest announcements, about the fact that they’re planning to go ahead with examinations in 2021, because this is the fairest thing to do. ‘Fair’ is a very difficult word to quantify.

Henry Price (09:39):

I think that the timing and U-turns and uncertainty certainly creates a sense of chaos and fiasco. And I will say that in these quite difficult, six months running a school, those were the most difficult four or five days around the A-Level periods because things changed on this Thursday. I think they changed again on the Monday and there’s a lot of emotion from parents and pupils around results and a lot of people asking for answers. And actually for the first time in my life, as an educator I didn’t feel as though I was the expert and I could be in control. I found that quite difficult. That said, we could run a very robust process for calculating our CAGs, the, Centre Assessment Grades, and actually over time as the dust settled, things worked out. I think in a sense, in what we said about the algorithm on a kind of macro level, the algorithm was trying to do the right thing. It was trying to create fairness, not just within a year, but between future years and past years. And it sort of did that. The problem is for a very, very large minority and therefore significant number of pupils, and their families, it was extremely unfair and threw off a lot of really unfair and anomalous results. And that’s really where the hue and cry came on, and I can understand why, but what a difficult situation, for example, it’s for schools, for universities and ultimately for Government trying to square it up.

Robert Hanna (11:18):

And as you say, it’s very easy to point the finger and blame, and hindsight is a wonderful thing. But do you think maybe government could have handled things differently?

Henry Price (11:27):

Yes, I think differently. I think that problem is, would it have been better. They talked about actually holding the exams last year. That’s what Ofqual wanted to do, but I’m not sure that would have been practical. I think the, the late throwing in of mock examinations as a fullback on the one hand was quite clever, but on the other hand, just couldn’t be policed. And therefore in a sense, they were driven to going to the CAG situation and they probably should have done that sooner. They probably should’ve sensed the direction of travel there and that’s how I would have done it differently. Not that I necessarily think that CAGs are brilliant, but I think it was clear that was where they were going to end up. So why did we have to have a week of terminals before that position was reached?

Robert Hanna (12:20):

Yeah, no, thanks for sharing that. And you know, we have to sort of move on because as you mentioned, you are running a school, a business, and, um, with that, there will be some examples I’m sure where you will have to seek some form of practical, legal advice. So on the odd occasion that does happen, what are some of the areas you may need says, look for legal support?

Henry Price (12:39):

Legal support is sort of part and parcel of any big organization where 28 million pounds turnover business… so commercial and property would be one area that is quite common; policies or some just have policies, checks and contracts. I think when things get difficult, it can be perhaps around something like an exclusion. There might be an issue around equality, it could be a breach of contract by a parent or we’re chasing fees and Lieu. It might be something to do with GDPR there’s quite a range of issues actually that we would contact lawyers for. I’m always felt it’s a good year for me, if I haven’t from a kind of headmaster points of view, but certainly our COO would see working with lawyers as, as a regular part of his role.

Robert Hanna (13:27):

Yeah, no. And thanks again for sharing that. And I guess another big thing we need to talk about is the rise of social media and mobile phones and what impacts that’s had on schools. What’s your view on the use of mobile phones by pupils in schools? And is it legal for schools to ban mobile phones whilst having them on school grounds?

Henry Price (13:48):

Do you know? I looked at the question, I thought I fit to answer the last part, and that, perhaps, I should push that back to you, Rob. I think legal might be the wrong phrase, but because parents sign up to a pair of contract and therefore our sense of rules and expectations, if we have reasonable rules and expectations and we therefore decide that mobile phones should not allowed on campus, um, then I think we are within our rights. I say that with care because someone will be listening to this and say, you’re not right Mr. Price. And so I put back caveats in terms of the wider issue. I think mobile technology has changed schools and it’s changed teenagers, has changed young people. I tend to take a middle ground approach, which is there’s no point of my generation or older being luddites and pretending mobile phones, social media are not part of life. They are. We have to, like everything else we do, try our best to be part of the education of the benefits, which are huge, and the risks, which are huge. I think there are links in my mind to teenage mental health. I think the pressure of living two lives for teenagers at times, but life in school face-to-face and another life that is constantly going on online is tiring. I think also produces bullying and unkindness with an ease that wouldn’t have happened in a face-to-face society. And yet the connectivity, the use, the fun, the enjoyment of social media, mobile technology is undeniable and educationally hugely beneficial at times, and therefore something we’ve got to embrace and keep working with.

Robert Hanna (15:36):

Yeah, no, I totally agree. And you mentioned their mental health and it’s so, so important. Do you think mental health should legally become part of the UK curriculum?

Henry Price (15:46):

My gut answer is yes, but it’s always started with, we have to be careful of what we put in our curriculum. I could sit and list hundreds of important matters, pastoral and educational, that could legally be part of our curriculum, but we have to try and build a rounded curriculum that cares for boys and girls, educates them, I guess, in body and mind. And I say in mind, in the truest sense of the word that we give them the skills, the intellectual academic knowledge skills for them to progress, but also the emotional skills to progress as well. So mental health is built into all we’re doing in schools at the moment and something, I think as a society, we are now much, much better as well. I hesitate to put a date on when we all started talking openly about mental health, but I would say it’s within the last decade and that’s been a, quite a positive, not quite. So it’s been a hugely positive change.

Robert Hanna (16:51):

Yeah, I agree. I think the more openness and more conversation we can have the raise awareness and make it sort of normal, the better. Just want to touch on all things Brexit, because we are seeing in the legal sector, we’re speaking to lawyers and law firms day in, day out, and there’s still a huge level of uncertainty around what the impacts might be. I mean, from an educational point of view, what impact do you see Brexit having on schools in the UK?

Henry Price (17:17):

I’m going to put that again in the “I’m not sure” bracket; I feel as someone who is in a global school with pupils coming from many different countries. I’m very keen to do that, and I wouldn’t wish any sense that those boys and girls are less welcome in the UK than they were previously, but at the moment we can’t see any impact. Actually, our recruitment remains strong. We’re keeping an eye to anything we to do in terms of visas, anything else in January or beyond, I think beyond that role it’s business as usual at the moment.

Robert Hanna (17:57):

Yeah, okay. That’s quite interesting to get your, your take on that. Let’s talk a little bit more, you know, as people sort of go through their school journey, you have the option, I believe, open between this sort of IB Diploma and A-Levels. For those perhaps not so familiar, what’s the key difference between the two?

Henry Price (18:15):

And I’m going to add in BTEC as well, actually, Rob. So we’ve got two BTECs which are increasingly popular and I think occasionally misunderstood; the merit of BTEC is it has a real modular approach, but A-Levels – I think pretty well known and understood in three or four, A-Levels and three really strong academic pillars. I think the interesting thing about A-Levels is that some pupils will pick A-Levels which are very interconnected, so like Maths, Physics and Chemistry, but actually you can pick A-Levels that are not so truly connected, and I still think that’s a strength of the A-Levels system. There is undoubtedly real depth of knowledge and depth of learning there, and I think that’s hugely powerful. The IB Diploma was not something that I was hugely okay with before I came here, but most certainly a smaller attraction of Oakham to me.

Henry Price (19:10):

And without going into all the details of how IB is broken down and fantastic website, makes you wants to dig further. It’s more of an interconnected philosophy with subjects at higher level and that standard level, as well as extended projects and so forth. But for me, what has really grown on me with the IB is that sense of range and breadth of understanding. It forces a global aspect, but also looking along the line in terms of skills, I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot in terms of COVID: on the one hand, we want our great scientists, for example, and we talk a lot about the science at the moment, we want people digging really deep into things, but equally we know that everything is interconnected and when we’re making decisions, there are economic elements, scientific elements, sort of human elements, political elements, and the ability to connect and see along the line and have a range. And for me, keeping breadths for as long as possible was in school, I think is a real strength. And the IB provides that as well as being globally recognized.

Robert Hanna (20:22):

Then of course, need to talk about, you know, how schools should generally measure their success. Should it be league tables, exam results, quality of facilities, pupil satisfaction, press image. What do you think should be the measurement of success?

Henry Price (20:38):

Think that is the toughest question of all. I have often open. In fact, one of my props when I was doing leavers talks at my previous school was a tape measure. And I would talk about the fact that a set of measurements will arrive in mid to late August, three or four letters, but that those three or four letters actually won’t define your life and that you will be measured in many other ways, sort of relationships that you build and what you can give back to life. So all of my art and all of my heart says it can never be about league tables and exam results. But I think also I’d be a foolish head not to use them as part of it because they give a sense of where we are. Even facilities – it’s always about facilitators, not facilities. So I would rather a really great teacher than a great sports hall if you like. But I think facilities do provide an environment and a space for pupils to grow and ascertain to achieve what they want. And I think well-kept facilities are also a reflection of a well-kept school and a school that is proud of itself, even if it’s not the biggest or the best it’s, it’s the pride in the campus and the prize in the look and attention to detail.

Robert Hanna (21:58):

But let’s dig a little bit deeper than we talked about the sort of academics, the key differentiators in terms of what are on offer. We’ve talked about sort of league tables, so in terms of more in schools than pure academics, what should parents be thinking about when choosing schools for their children?

Henry Price (22:16):

I think you have to go back to basics as a parent. First of all, I mean, there are simple things about location. There are simple things. Do I want co-education or single sex? Do I want boarding or day or flexi-boarding? And I think very quickly then you can narrow yourself down, but to come back to the essence of your question in the measurements, you mentioned pupil wellbeing and pupil satisfaction. And I think that is it. And it’s the hardest thing to measure, but it’s also what parents instinctively know. They know when their children are going into happy and coming home happy. They know when they’re getting good texts or the fact that they’re not receiving texts means that life is good. And I always think about that program ‘One Born Every Minute’, I don’t know if you know about it Rob Do you? Sat down and seen that?

Robert Hanna (23:04):

I’ve seen that! Yeah, I have.

Henry Price (23:04):

So, set in maternity wards around the country. I sort of filed the whole documentary. It’s a program have to be careful when I find my wife watching it. So I’ve already got four children. It’s a tear in her eye as a mum and dad hold their new baby. And actually it’s a really important moment. And I’ve said it to parents before, when we did hold our children in our arms, what did we look down and think, because we didn’t think I hope you get 10 nines at the GCSEs and a captain of the netball team. We actually thought more about, I hope that you are happy. I hope you are healthy. I hope that you make friends. I hope you can build relationships. I hope that you go on to a difference and I hope that I can be proud of you. And yeah, if you could get a job and move out of home in a timely fashion, that would be helpful as well. Those are the measurements. And I think I’d say to parents when they visit, it’s got to feel right for you. And if it feels right, it will work out well.

Robert Hanna (24:02):

Yeah, I know… Really, really well said. And you spoke at the sort of beginning of the podcast around privilege and just want to sort of talk around that a little bit more. How do you feel schools such as Oakham and lots of others can become more accessible to less affluent families?

Henry Price (24:19):

I think it’s something that we may touch on. Again, Rob, I have to say that the donations hre here. I’m not going to step away from the financial elements, the donations and financial support of really philanthropic all the parents and former alumni for Oakham and elsewhere, make a huge difference. We can, through our income through our normal turnover, make something of a difference in terms of providing bursaries and in terms of allowing access. And it’s important that we do, um, you know, within the overall picture of the business, the easiest way is when that finance comes outside and then we really can bring in boys and girls. We work with Royal Springboard Foundation to bring in boarders. We’d like to bring in local families as well. And I think that we can provide access to… I think it is a life-changing education.

Robert Hanna (25:17):

Well said. And so just digging a bit deeper, as you mentioned, what can private schools do to engage more with their local communities? And do you believe there should be laws requiring private schools to give back to communities?

Henry Price (25:31):

Almost a podcast in itself, Rob… I think, and a touch on the word of privilege. There’s no doubt that independent schools need to think very carefully about their place in education and their place in British society. And the word privilege, I think is one it’s hard to step away from. And we need to be aware of our privilege. For me, as long as that is recognized, um, well by pupils, and when they become former pupils, alumni, and they’re out in the world working and earning and giving back. And if they do that well and they leave here knowing that, that they really should be grateful and responsible with that privilege, and I think we’ve done a good job. In terms of legally requiring private schools to give back, of course, lots of talk around charity status and there has been one for a long time. And there will be for a long time. There isn’t a one size fits all. And I think that often can be frustrating for the independent sector, that we’re all very different, different in our locations, different in our resources, and different within the local communities, in which we say Oakham School sits within a small market town of Oakham. And that does allow us to do certain things. And my predecessor, the school worked really hard in the setting off of Harrington, which is now a really thriving a sixth form college throughout; 101 ways in which we’re subtly interconnected and give back to the community, but that will change from school to school. And I think one of the slight sadness for me in the last 20 years or so has been, I think the schools have always given back to their local community and done. So because that was in the DNA and that was what they always wanted to do. And now it looks like it’s happening at times because we’re required to do so. And that’s a shame, that’s a shame because I think it was happening anyway. And I think it will continue to do so.

Robert Hanna (27:29):

No, and I agree with you there, Henry has a really sort of valid point. And as we look to sort of wrap up just a sort of couple of questions, if people have had this, you know, privileged education, we’ve talked about it there about giving back, but what are some of the ways maybe to give some people, some ideas, you know, it’s not necessarily all about sort of monetary ways of giving back… All the other things maybe alumni should be thinking about or could do that may not be aware of how they can add value and give back to their respective schools.

Henry Price (27:57):

Yeah, so absolutely, putting finance to one side… I do think one of the ways in which alumni give back without even noticing is by being great alumni, by being successful in their own fields. So continuing a really sort of proud badge and ethos and values of what Oakham or another school has taken with them. So if you’re succeeding, and I don’t just mean succeeding in a sort of grand way, but if you’re succeeding in life, actually, then you’re providing ongoing support for the school because you’re taking that good name with you. Um, I think linked to that then is word of mouth. I really encourage alumni, OOs in this case, to stay connected and to stay up to date with the school. So that even if you’re not at a stage where you have children or you, you wouldn’t send them here, but nevertheless, you can talk positively about the school to those who might be interested and you might think when I’m moving out of London and where am I, I relocate to, well, you know, I went to Oakham, it’s a great place to have a look. That word of mouth is really important. And I think finally, the sort of things that you’ve done Rob, and hundreds of other OOs, to coming back, giving talks, mentoring advice to our current pupils and indeed current headmasters and others, that sort of sense of friendship is still really valuable. And particularly when I was bringing in expertise from a very different era, some of my best conversations, both as Head here and in my previous school, come from alumni at a kind of social event, and after an hour of just listening to them, talk about their business and their experience, I’m all the wiser, I’m just a slightly better Head after having spoken to them.

Robert Hanna (29:40):

Yeah. And again, I think you’ve put that really, really well, Henry. And I know I’ve asked a lot of interesting, challenging, very sort of big questions and probably to end on a big question as well, where do you see the education sector in the next 10 years heading?

Henry Price (29:54):

Fewer examinations, I think possibly post-A-Level applications to university. I think the interesting thing is this, how much lockdown has fast-tracked the use of technology and teaching? I certainly still believe a good teacher in the classroom face-to-face is going to remain a pillar of good education for a long time to come. But I do see now that technology should be able to speed and support teachers as well as pupils better and staff have really had to fast-track both of them commercially; hundreds and hundreds of other schools across the land, how they use technology. There’s a bit of rebalancing of that still to come, but I think that’s been a positive. So more technology, fewer examinations, still a real sense of pastoral care. And, looking after teenagers, I think we’ll see a bit more science around good pastoral care and value of appropriate jokes. You talked about league tables, we can sort of measure exam results, but I think we’re getting better at measuring wellbeing. We’re getting better at measuring the immeasurable. That sounds like an odd phrase, but I think it’s true. Um, I think that’s really exciting. I think we’re going to see more collaboration within schools. We’re already seeing big multi-academy trusts. We do see the independent sector in partnership in all sorts of ways. I think we’re going to see more partnership and the question to me, and I really hope, Rob, is that we’re a bit disconnected globally at the moment, but I hope that global connection remains because education isn’t something that’s prevalent just to the UK. Education is education and we need to keep sharing education right across society and right across the world.

Robert Hanna (31:50):

I couldn’t agree more. And as I say, I think it’s going to be a very exciting times ahead for the education sector. So I’d just like to say, an absolute massive thank you Henry for coming on the show! As a fellow OO 2004 (showing my age a little bit), it’s been a real pleasure having you on I’m wishing you and everyone involved in Oakham lots of continued success, but for now, over and out.

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