Government education policy “neglects the child”, says HMC Chairman Tim Hands

The “dead restraining hand” of Government education policy over the last half century has neglected the care of the child in a utilitarian pursuit of academic success, says the leader of Britain’s top independent schools.

In his address today, opening the annual meeting in London of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the chairman, Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School, Oxford, told members:

“The story of the last 50 years is the intrusion of Government and the disappearance of the child. More radically put, it is by extension the intrusion of the State, and the disappearance of love.

“The long interfering arm and dead restraining hand of Government has emasculated the education system of this country and deprived children of their long-accumulated heritage. Only the independence of our schools has kept alive in its fullness that heritage, that hard-accumulated national birth-right.”

The post-80s drive to push up academic standards, he said, was based on the mistaken belief that it is not necessary to make a child happy as the first priority, so that they can then be successful, as the second.

“Indeed this philosophy believed that if you make a child academically successful then happiness will follow. It plays itself out in Government pay structures, which are removing pastoral posts and placing an emphasis on results alone.”

Excessive interference in the curriculum and an emphasis on testing, said Dr Hands, has meant that: “Principles of commercial accountability were transferred to the education of the child. Hence the flawed mechanism and, still worse, flawed metric, of league tables, about which this sector has protested regularly but in vain.”

The HMC, established in 1869, was founded in the Victorian recognition of “the existence of the child,“said Dr Hands. “It was the age when the child could ask for more, and, newly, expect to be heard. This is the golden age of children’s literature and, especially, of the myriad creations of Charles Dickens – the Olivers, the Pips, the Jos, the Davids.

“The underlying historic realisation was that children are special. And, as a consequence of this, they should above all be loved – not threatened by violence, by the likes of Mr Squeers, or filled with facts, by the likes of Mr Gradgrind. The child now had a new status; and as a consequence, the child’s education was of major national importance.

“This background is important. For if it was the 19th century that invented this understanding of the child, it is the 21st that bids fair to hold its funeral. The chief mission and pride of our schools, historically and at the present, is to keep that concept of the child alive and cherished,” said Dr Hands.

Contrary to established belief, he said, HMC schools have never been focused entirely on the academic. In the independent sector, pastoral care has become ever more important, a key, for some schools, to their very survival.

“Perennial cross-fertilisation between day and boarding education has meant that the boarding concept of pastoral care – that the school is to the child as the parent is to the child – has been kept alive in the independent day sector whereas the state has allowed it largely to disappear.

In extra-curricular provision, too, “the more the state has intervened post war in the life of the child, the less it has offered by way of extra-curricular provision.”

The independent sector may have striven to keep alive the commitment to extra-curricular activity, in part as a response to the industrial unrest of the 1980s which hastened its removal from the state sector, said Dr Hands.

But he added: “It is misplaced to blame teachers, many of whom make highly vocational and lonely efforts to keep many activities alive. It is not teachers who sell off – as successive governments have done – the playing fields– the most clearly symbolic and auditable index of lack of commitment.  The political commitment of the state to extra-curricular activity disappeared once the state had lost a commitment to the child and its full holistic development.”

Dr Hands concluded with an appeal to policy-makers: “The history of our association lies in challenging government practice. Children and childhood are too precious to be abandoned to the anonymous and impersonal guardianship of the state.

“The state is not currently suitable to direct education unaided or unchallenged because it does not understand the child. We have a key offering – we have a key international product. Especially at this time of party conferences, wise political parties will want to listen to us. All political parties know our appeal, and our number. The lines are always open.”

HMC MEMBERS CAN READ THE FULL SPEECH HERE or email communications@hmc.org.uk for a copy.