A new book about Public School Missions offers HMC hints for the New Year

Dr Tim Hands

HMC Honorary Member, Former Headmaster of Winchester College and Chair of HMC (2013-2014)

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Tim Hands explains …

Why should we have independent schools? Do we need them? What have they actually done? What might they contribute to the future?

Bright the Vision: Public School Missions from the Victorian Age allows the enterprising author and publisher Malcolm Tozer to furnish the materials for debate, by drawing together studies of 22 schools and what their missions have done from the second half of the nineteenth century until the present day. An importantly thought provoking read, it offers a grammar of public benefit and a philosophical primer of schools’ wider historic aims.

These 22 initiatives  (for mission is a term they understandably came to discard) served diverse religious, moral, social and educational purposes. Deploring the existence of Two Nations, many saw their primary purpose as ensuring the rich had some understanding of the conditions of the poor. The initial pioneers were generally clergyman of remarkably energetic social dispositions and sincere religious beliefs, not infrequently expressing themselves through a sometimes counterproductive ritual.

Tozer’s formidable team of twenty two experts meticulously chart the achievements, the problems and the tragedies. Each contributor fits within a formula but there is always detail, clarity, and even the occasional touch of reassuring humour amidst the extraordinary self sacrifice and dizzying earnestness.

What the Clubs managed was as diverse as it was remarkable. Uppingham opened three new churches and schools for 1500 children. Eton produced Olympic Gold Medallists in Boxing. Harrow, not to be outdone, commissioned Norman Shaw, no less,  for its mission buildings in Notting Vale; and with a touch of irony, produced from it soccer players – Alan Mullery, Jimmy Armfield, Les Ferdinand. This is small wonder perhaps, when luminaries prepared to assist the missions included talents such as Dennis Compton, Sir Alf Ramsey, and Douglas Jardine. This was not just physical activity, bodyline bowling: its real target was, via the building of character, the development of  the soul.

What put the missions into a decline? Finance, certainly; secularisation, inevitably; but most of all the realisation of a welfare state whose ideology, fascinatingly, derives in no small part from public school influence. Winchester’s post-war socialists, Cripps, Gaitskell, Crossman and others, drew part of their inspiration from the school’s Portsmouth mission and London Boys Clubs. Attlee’s defining views of the welfare state were shaped by his time as a pupil at Haileybury and then as manager of its East End club. If the public schools did not teach their pupils about citizenship, he believed, they would lose their position in the modern world.  Several contributors persuasively see their 1960s community service programmes, their Blair-age partnerships, or their current roles in Academies, as spiritual successors of their original Missions.

“England has never before had this fastening of a school onto real life work,” the pioneering Thring recorded. “May it increase and spread.”

The Victorian missions sprang from conviction and belief, not out of fiscal compulsion. They sought to amplify the state, not compensate for it. They grew from a willing and prompted conscience, not from threats of embarrassed politicians.

Does the vision remain usefully bright?

“Lay your foundations deep in the realities of life” Thring had once enjoined a favourite  pupil.

We must all hope that, looking at the realities of history, Keir Starmer will try to do the same. In the meantime, this is a book which every Head should ensure is read in their Common Room, recommended to their Governing body, and drawn to the attention of their MP for onward transmission.

“Bright the vision that delighted, Once …” goes the hymn.

Vision is not usually lacking in Independent schools. The right attitudes and partnerships in the future might help us to replicate the astonishing achievements of the past.

Bright the Vision: Public School Missions from the Victorian Age, edited by Malcolm Tozer, is published by Sunnyrest Books.

Hardback: ISBN 13: 978-1-80352-578-5.  Paperback: ISBN 13:978-1-80352-579-2


19 January 2024