Tucked away in a small village north of Brighton, Hurstpierpoint College has been an education success story with a 100% growth in student numbers over the last decade as well as ever-improving buildings and facilities. The school is rarely in the news and concentrates on what it does best. Which is exactly how they like it. Ian Trevett met with the Headmaster Tim Manly at the end of a busy academic year.
It must be about two years since I last met with Hurst Headmaster Tim Manly and a lot has changed in that short period of time.
“We have continued to expand since you and I last met,” says Mr Manly. “Next year, we will have about 800 pupils in the senior school and getting on for 1,200 across the entire college, so we are pretty much almost exactly double where we were when I first arrived.
“We’re looking into the future now because we’ve gone through that phase of rapid expansion and we’ve reached the point where we are at the optimum size. We are an interesting hybrid of a local school which is predominantly boarding with the vast majority living within 50 minutes’ drive, plus increasing numbers from London.
“Last year we announced the decision to move away from full boarding, so there are no longer any overseas pupils. So, the challenge now is for us not to become too parochial and to ensure that there is a diversity here – and part of that is going to be answered by the London market.”
It has been a period of constant growth and change, but the school is right to know when it is time to consolidate and stop chasing expansion. Perhaps this is a good lesson for the business world. However, growth was essential when Mr Manly first took over the reins.
“When I first arrived and we were a 400-student senior school and everyone was saying how lovely that was. I said, “Yes, but the school is actually not making any sort of surplus, and if you want to offer what we want to be able to offer, it’s going to have to be larger. The question is, how large can we go before we lose what we think is special?” I think we’re at the right place now.
“We are a pretty chunky school and if we get much larger, as with my previous two schools, Oakham and Sevenoaks, then it starts becoming a little bit Darwinian in terms of whether someone’s in a team, production, event or not. It means unless you’re really good you don’t get the opportunity, and even if you do create lots of teams, you end up with someone who’s perfectly competent but they’re in an F team and the team probably has limited fixtures.”
Getting too big can also mean the personal touch is lost. Mr Manly has always known the name of all his pupils. “I think that’s really important. I’m with Michael Wilshaw (former head of Ofsted) who said “Heads shouldn’t be around showboating. They should be in their schools.” They should know what is happening and that it’s absolutely as it should be. If I walked out into the cloisters and didn’t recognise all the children then I would really feel like a stranger in my own school.”
The numbers have grown and the facilities are improving, but perhaps the most fundamental change is in the nature of the school. In our last interview we spoke about the benefits of becoming completely co-educational. A more recent change is the switch to weekly and flexi-boarding.
“It’s the future of boarding in the South East,” says Mr Manly. “It has meant that we have not needed to go into the overseas market. Weekly and flexi three-nights-a-week boarding is hugely attractive. The students spend time with their families, but also have some independence. When they go off to university or to the world of work they have had the experience of being away from home.”
An unintended benefit may also be that the school is less dependent on overseas students and therefore at less risk from any Brexit fallout. Does Mr Manly agree?
“A really interesting question! We had a debate last year about whether we should go for the overseas market or not, and my feeling is very simple: I don’t think we did the full boarding as well as other schools.
“There’s a group of my governors who would, quite rightly, see full boarding as a good hedge against the UK economy tanking, because then you can fill the school with pupils from overseas, which is helped by sterling being very weak at the moment. I can understand that, but we’re a school and you have to work out what is right for the school as a community and a place of learning and then really focus on what you can do really well and better than other people.
“Similarly, over the last few years we’ve had quite a few approaches about setting up schools in the Middle East, in Qatar and one or two other places, and I’ve always said no. Culturally I’m not entirely comfortable with setting up a school in some of those areas, in terms of belief and value sets.”
So is Hurstpierpoint College, therefore, future-proofed?
“We have tried to keep it steady in terms of organic growth. Our pupil numbers have increased by 100%, but the growth has been incremental. We are building a new theatre, a new girls’ day house, and a new Astroturf, and we’ve got a new sports complex in the pipeline, but all these things came after the numbers increased rather than before. We’ve not gone overboard on the debt and the borrowing.
“The new theatre is an interesting development because we have a pretty good theatre already but it’s reached the end of its life. The new one will have a capacity of nearly 400. It’s not just about the drama, it’s about getting my whole Sixth Form, or other sections of the school, together for meetings, presentations or maybe to do another TEDx or offer a venue for Question Time. Then we can replace the old theatre with a new swimming pool and then replace the old swimming pool with a really large gym with a sprung floor for dance and aerobics.
“We’re just putting our finishing touches to our sixth girls’ day house and we’re redeveloping a new boys’ day house as well. We now have six boys’ houses, six girls’ houses and then the Upper Sixth Form co-ed house.
“But it’s not all about the buildings. We look at our children and ask: “Is this the right fit? Is this the right place?” But also: “Is this a school that will move around them, to fit them, rather than just expecting them to conform?” There are far too many “J.F. Kennedy” schools in the independent sector who ask not what the school can do for a child, but what that child can do for them. It’s about taking a creative child who may be very, very bright, creative or sporty, or maybe not, but knowing they’re going to thrive according to their own ability.”
CONNECTING WITH THE COMMUNITY
The next big project for Mr Manly is to ensure the school shares both its experience and advantages.
“We are very interested in linking with a free school. That would certainly be my aim. We have connections with various academies within the Woodard Group but ideally we want to be involved with the sponsorship of at least one free school, ideally to start one from scratch locally with a fundamental sharing of facilities, experience and skills.
“This may be the Burgess Hill free school, which has been mooted. There are also a few zones alongside the A23 at the moment which are earmarked for fairly rapid growth and building. These will need a new school which, depending how things change politically, will probably have free school status. We would want to be involved in their development.”
If this becomes a reality it will fit perfectly with the original ethos of the school, a heritage which Mr Manly is very aware of.
“I said this before - if all I’m doing is perpetuating a wealthy elite here, then that is not good enough. It has to be much, much more than that. The pupils from this place have to be good people who are going to make a proper difference in the world, but equally the resources of the college should be utilised in ways which benefit the broader community as well.
“I think it’s very good for us to be part of the locality. Our staff and pupils will benefit hugely. I’m very keen to ensure we are meshed into our local community in a way that we are being seen, quite rightly, to be doing our bit.”
EDUCATION AND POLITICS
Since we last spoke there have been two new Education Ministers. Has there been a change of approach, I asked.
“The biggest issue facing anyone in the Department of Education is the lack of money and with a hung parliament, we are in a state of not quite knowing which way education is going to go. I hope that they will continue to run with both the free schools and academies programmes because I think they’re both great programmes.
“The maintained sector has taken a hammering. With the cap on pay, I think there’s a feeling that they have been a political football and that their position has been somewhat undermined.”
This is certainly the case with the emphasis on results and targets, which can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum.
Mr Manly concurs: “There’s a real sense that the number one priority is to get the right results because if you don’t, the consequences are very serious for you, your job and the money for the school. This puts people off coming into the profession, but the maintained schools that I visit seem to be very orderly, well-run and effective places.”
Independent schools have always encouraged pupils to engage in debate, but this is not always the case elsewhere. But in the recent election we saw that young people voted in huge numbers. Is this down to Jeremy Corbyn being a positive influence in encouraging political engagement?
“In terms of getting people to vote, yes. If you cast your mind back to the Brexit vote, one of the constant cries then was: Where were the under-23s or under-24s? If they had turned out, as they could have done, that vote would have quite easily tipped to remain. So in some ways, I think, it’s a really good thing.
“My observation is that it was a really poor decision by the Conservative Party to have the election when the universities were still in session because it meant you had places like Oxford, Cambridge and Canterbury stacked with a student vote that tipped the local result.
“For those like me who remember the 1970s, they will recognise some of the things being thrown around now, and some of the ideas which are seemingly attractive on the face of it actually could be pretty disastrous for the economy.
“Having said that, the tuition fees issue is building into an absolute nightmare, potentially a scandal, as the amount of money lent that will get paid is very much in doubt. I speak as somebody who’s got one just finishing university and one about to start. I don’t have an objection to the idea of fees, but the punitive interest rate makes no sense at all. You can get a much lower interest rate from your bank than is currently being charged on a student loan. That can’t be right.
Mr Corbyn also suggested ending charity status for independent schools, with significant VAT implications for fees. How much of a challenge would this be?
“That would be huge,’ says Mr Manly. “We are lucky to be where we are and maybe we’d be okay, but it would be a tough call for a lot of schools on whether they would survive. The net cost to the state would probably actually increase if more pupils needed to be accommodated in the maintained sector.
“There are interesting debates on the whole question of taxation and where it should fall. There’s an intrinsic unfairness that a coffee shop down in Hurstpierpoint village is paying every tax under the sun, whereas a multi-national may be backing it out through Luxembourg or wherever. This is not a level playing field and there’s that feeling that if you are big enough as a corporation, then somehow you can manoeuvre around tax, but you and I cannot.”
As before, the conversation with Mr Manly was fascinating and free-flowing and took in everything from French politics to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is always an exchange that is thought-provoking, stimulating and open, but most of all, enjoyable. If only I was many, many years younger, I would love to be learning at this school.