A funding revolution is taking grammars back to the future

The Telegraph, 19.06.15 accessibility and the social mobility must be central to the purpose of all independent schools says HMC member John Claughton, Chief Master of King Edward's School, Birmingham. HMC schools: Manchester Grammar School, the Royal Grammar School Newcastle, Bradford Grammar School and Nottingham High School are also referenced.

A few months ago, Alan Bennett said that the existence of independent education was unfair. You might expect me, the Chief Master of theindependent King Edward’s School, Birmingham, to disagree. But Bennett is right.

Sadly, the world never will be fair. But there was a time in the past when education was less unfair and there are ways in which it can be less unfair now and in the future.

What of the past? Between 1944 and 1997 very many of the best independent schools in this country were not the exclusive preserves of those who could pay school fees. Under the Direct Grant system, and its lesser descendant, the Government Assisted Places Scheme, hundreds of independent schools received state funding for bright pupils. Many of those schools, the boy and girl grammar schools of Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Newcastle, Bolton and, of course, Birmingham, were the academic powerhouses of the North and the Midlands.

At King Edward’s School, 80 per cent of the boys attended for free, and that accessibility generated wondrous opportunity and success: our old boys from that period include Lord Hall; Kenneth Tynan; the writers Jonathan Coe and Lee Child; “Two brains” David Willetts; Richard Borcherds, winner of the Fields Medal; and Sir Paul Ruddock, Chairman of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Each year more than a third of the pupils went to Oxbridge, almost entirely from families that had never been to university. And such mobility did make a difference even to the nature of those universities: in his recent memoir, A Different Kind of Weather, Lord Waldegrave, the current Provost of Eton, writes: “Oxford, when I went up in 1965, had a wider social mix than was achieved for 40 years or so. In 1965 the products of the best grammar and direct grant schools felt that the world was going their way. They, not the public school boys, set the tone of the university.” And, in those meritocratic times, they set the tone in the world beyond, too.

That was then, but what of now? Well, it seems unlikely that any government will have that rare combination of courage and good sense to go back to the future and make these great schools accessible again. All of those schools would bite their hand off, but there is not likely to be any hand to bite. However, there are things to be done and many of the schools are doing it for themselves by raising funds for means-tested Assisted Places. Of course, this is only a shadow of what used to be, but it is something.

Manchester Grammar School has raised £25 million since 1997 for the purpose and there are more than 200 boys in the school on bursaries. King Edward’s School, slower to action, has raised £8 million in five years and expects to reach £10 million within a year. At the moment, more than 100 boys (out of 850) are in the school on free places. RGS Newcastle, Bradford GS, Nottingham HS and others are setting out down the same road. Almost all of this funding comes from alumni who contribute for a simple reason: a generation ago they experienced a life-transforming education for nothing. Now they want to give that same chance to other children.

Of course, this is no panacea. That is as elusive as perfect fairness. It is a start, however, and it will get better and better: the old Direct Grant schools might even start to dream of the holy grail of a needs-blind education. This might take another generation but so be it: we’ve being going since the 16th century.

As for the great “public schools”, it may not be quite so easy for them to follow the same path, even though many of them are trying and have rich alumni. They don’t have legions of alumni grateful for their free education who want to give back. They don’t have a tradition going back centuries of providing education for all. Nor do they have 300 junior schools close at hand from which to choose pupils. And, as their fees are three times those of a Midlands day school, they have to raise massive funds to provide free places.

Accessibility and the social mobility that follows must be central to the purpose of all independent schools. Many people think grammar schools are key to this. They are. But a new grammar school building boom is unlikely. Instead, it is through the funding revolution for free places that schools such as King Edward’s are truly leading the way.

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