Leading headmasters defend values of independent schools

In an article in the Sunday Telegraph, 17/02/13, Julie Henry talks to HMC's incoming chairmen, Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School, and Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham School.

Independent schools are under the spotlight like never before, and their place in Britain’s education landscape has never been so intensely debated.

Stepping into the fray is Tim Hands, the master of Magdalen College School, Oxford. The 55-year-old takes up his chairmanship of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents the leading independent schools, in very interesting times.

He will be followed as chairman by Richard Harman, the head of Uppingham School, the £30,000-a-year boarding school where HMC was originally established in 1896.

“It is not a question of feeling sorry for ourselves,” says Mr Hands, sitting in his study, along side Harman, at the £14,000-a-year day school.

“If you have a job like a football manager, then you are under pressure. If you have the spending power of Chelsea, there is going to be envy by the supporters of other clubs.

"That is only natural. Independent schools charge fees. Yes, a third of pupils have bursary support, but we can’t get rid of the fact that people pay.

“But it is not wrong de facto to pay for education. There is a kind of assumption isn’t there in some bits of society that it is necessarily wrong to pay for education, in a way that it is not wrong to pay for expensive holiday, for instance. And I disagree.”

The idea fuelling the “posh prejudice” debate – that independent schools are full of “toffs” – is simply mistaken, according to Hands and Harman. A third of pupils in HMC schools are on financial support to help with days fees which average £11,000-a-year and average boarding fees of £24,000-a-year.

It emerged last year that one third of the means-tested bursaries given out by Oxford University to undergraduates who are from low-income homes went to students who were educated at independent schools – a fact seized on by Hands as evidence that not all pupils who are privately schooled are “posh”.

“There is a tendency for Joe Public to think about independent schools with a 'them and us’ mentality in which independent schools represent toffs and are therefore to be tilted at," says Hands.

"That is not the reality. This school comes out of the grammar school movement. Schools like Uppingham are not about toffs either. HMC is about the aspiring middle classes.”

A raft of leading figures in the Coalition were educated at private school, including David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osbourne, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Andrew Lansley and Oliver Letwin. On the opposition frontbenches, Ed Balls, Harriett Harman, Tessa Jowell and Chuka Umunna were privately educated.

What particularly angers HMC is politicians who enjoy the huge benefits bestowed by the independent sector, but then distance themselves from it or seek to undermine it.

In last year’s conference speech, the prime minister, while referring to the “great school” he went to, did not mention Eton by name.

While Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, made a point of highlighting his education at Haverstock comprehensive school in north London, claiming that his time there had taught him “how to get on with people from all backgrounds”.

“One has to be realistic about the political pressures on politicians,” says Harman. “It is part of the world we live in but it is a paradox that many of our leaders are people who have been educated in our greatest schools but find it rather difficult to make a virtue of that.”

Hands pulls no punches, accusing Nick Clegg of “double standards”. The deputy prime minister is considering private school for his eldest son and recently looked round £23,000 a year Westminster School with his wife Miriam González Durántez.

However, in a speech last year that recommended giving university places to students from poor backgrounds even if their grades were slightly lower, Clegg said that the “great rift” between the best schools, most of which are private, and the schools ordinary families use was “corrosive”.

Hands says: “On the one hand there’s personal support for the independent sector by sending one’s own child into it. On the other there is a political interference in higher education by trying to limit the number of independent school pupils going to top universities.

“Worse, this interference is based on inaccurate statistics and questionable research. So it is rather a case of the left hand claiming not to realise what the right hand is doing – Nick Clegg’s actions and his language smack of double standards.

"If you want to find something corrosive, then you only need to look as far as political interference in the academic integrity of university admissions.”

The mixed messages coming from the Coalition make it difficult for the sector to “know where it stands”, according to Hands.

Despite this, HMC is confident about its power to influence the education landscape. In a recent interview Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said the techniques used by private schools to push bright children and talented sports stars should be emulated by state schools. In the 2012 Olympics, for instance, more than a third of British medal winners in the 2012 London Olympics were from private schools.

Sir Michael also praised the sector’s commitment to developing pupils characters – its concentration on pastoral care and extra-curricular activities that help to fuel outstanding academic results.

In last summer’s A-levels, almost a third of privately educated teenagers gained straight As, compared to one in 10 of state school pupils.

Some 18 per cent of A-level entries from independent schools received A* grades compared to a national average of 8 per cent. At GCSE, 31 per cent of private school entries gained an A* compared to a national average of 7 per cent.

Harman makes the point that successive governments have accepted the virtue of the “autonomy” of schools, making it the backbone of the academies programme.

He takes it as a tribute to the private sector that the notion of “independence”, even a partial one, is becoming embedded as education orthodoxy.

Links between the private sector and England’s 23,000 state schools are at record levels and when the two sectors speak in a united and loud voice, mountains can be moved – as was evident with Michael Gove’s back down over GCSE reforms. The next battle is improving exam boards’ record on the quality of examiners and marking.

Hands cites a recent book, Everyday Life in British Government by Rod Rhodes, an Australian academic and Professor Emeritus of politics at Newcastle University, which claims that during the A-level crisis of 2002 – when grades were “fixed” because the pass rates in Labour’s new modular A-levels were deemed too high – it was the intervention of HMC that swung the balance with the press and the public and lead to the downfall of Estelle Morris, the then Labour education secretary.

“That is the virtue of the sector,” says Hands. “Its ability to say what it wishes and what it thinks is best for young people. Opinion polls show that the majority of people would send their child to an independent school if they could. That means that when independent school heads speak out, the public is very prepared to listen.

“That’s the whole historic basis of HMC – it’s what we actually started for – to stand up for the rights of children over the long arm, and sometimes dead hand, of government.”

By Julie Henry, The Telegraph. Click here to read the article © The Telegraph.