Private schools treated like ‘society’s villains’ because of ‘stereotyping and prejudice’, says top headteacher

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Private schools are the victims of “stereotyping and prejudice” and people should stop treating them as “society’s villains”, a top headteacher will argue on Monday.

Sally-Anne Huang, the first female high master of St Paul’s School in London, will also say that private schools can help “heal” UK society from the “multiple wounds” it has sustained from Covid-19.

Ms Huang has just taken over as chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, a group of 296 elite private schools.

In a speech to kick off the HMC annual conference she will claim that private schools have been unfairly vilified.

‘Society’s villains’

“As head of an HMC school I expect to be cast as one of society’s villains,” she will say.

“I still get out of bed every day to improve things for young people and, increasingly in recent years, not just the young people in my own school. So I’m not sure why I should be judged more harshly than those in other professions… to quote Rizzo from Grease – ‘there are worse things I could do’”.

She will say anti-private school sentiment is a “well-worn type of stereotyping and prejudice” which heads “are used to”, but that criticism has got worse because of increased polarisation in society.

‘Someone to blame’

“What I do think is new and troubling is the increasing tendency across society as a whole to look for difference and division rather than common ground,” she will say. “To look for someone to blame, rather than a solution to a shared problem.

“At HMC, we are often the people who are blamed, and, although I would be the first to acknowledge the difference between our budgets and those on offer to our colleagues in state schools, the reality is, we are willing and able to help with the problem.

“Members will all know that, when we spend time with state school heads, we have more that unites than divides us. I don’t believe state school heads have spent the last six months wishing that independent schools didn’t exist but, I do know that they have wished for better-timed announcements, clarity and consistency over exam results and consideration for the mental health of their colleagues and pupils. As have we.”

‘Healing’ UK

She will say that after Covid, “healing” needs to take place in the UK to restore the country “in terms of inclusion, education and economics”.

“The UK needs its most successful institutions, institutions like ours, more than ever before, to help it heal.”

Private schools have long been accused of entrenching privilege, and in 2019 delegates at the Labour conference even passed a motion calling for the effective abolition of the sector.

In the wake of the pandemic, critics have taken issue with the greater resources that independent schools are able to devote to their pupils compared to the state sector, including in some cases access to private Covid testing.

No ‘snowflakes’

In her speech, Ms Huang will also hit out at the characterisation of young people as “snowflakes”:

“In this country, I cannot think of a group of young people out of war time, of whom more has been asked or from whom more has been taken than those in our nation’s schools in 2020,” she will say.

“Anyone who, like me, was with 18-year-olds in March when they suddenly learnt that not just their chance to prove themselves in exams, but also all those joyous rites of passage at the end of their school days had been taken from them – anyone who saw them pick themselves up, move on, adapt, they would not call them snowflakes.”

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