Schools and society:
past, present and future

In this valedictory editorial, HMC General Secretary William Richardson reflects on how schools of all kinds find a place in UK society

GK Chesterton sends a telegram to his wife, c. 1905.

“Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?”

The HMC General Secretary at Market Harborough station, 2018.

“I am also here. Where ought I to be?”

The longer you live, the further you can see.

This is but one of the ways in which youth is wasted on the young. Meanwhile, thoughtful adults – not least those in positions of leadership or authority over others – become aware of just how much more it would have been useful to know before taking far-reaching decisions.

I have had the good fortune of a career comprised mostly of being paid to think, write and innovate in education – first in Unilever, then during 25 years as a teaching academic, research director, Head of School and governor across three universities and, since 2011, as the 15th General Secretary of HMC.

Either side of 2011, my younger son went through primary and secondary education in Devon state schools. When I joined HMC, my elder son, an authority on GK Chesterton and modernism, was able to offer a warning based on relevant difficulties that the great man had encountered at the home of HMC.

So what, if anything, do I now see

more clearly?

Schools in society

As even their doughtiest opponents acknowledge, independent schools in Britain have proved remarkably adept at evolving with the times. While not inevitable, this adaptability derives from their operation as private institutions in which the compact between the parent, the school and the child is subject to continuous adjustment.

Critics are suspicious. It seems to suggest a constant vigilance based on self-interest linked, necessarily, to the doing down of others. A more charitable perspective would be that, just as the educational needs of individuals evolve so, too, must schools if they are to operate with fidelity, inspire their pupils and demonstrate how supple institutions preserve past strengths as they modernise.

This suppleness is illustrated in some depth in the extended features in this issue of Insight on how HMC schools maintain their ethos while also evolving in size and shape, creating more pervasive community interactions and, in an important contribution to the Brexit economy, becoming more international.

In state-funded schools the challenge of continuous adaptation is more complex and difficult. In the mid-1950s, when the full resources of the British state came to be directed towards providing free “secondary education for all”, they started to become public agencies saturated with contested social ideals. Not since the denominational battles of the 1850s and 1860s had such tensions over purpose been felt. In recent decades they have also been required to manage under an ever-increasing layer of political scrutiny and intervention, entirely characteristic of the modern social democratic state.

The timing of increased tension was not a coincidence. Broad cross-party consensus in Britain about the management of state schools during the first half of the twentieth century broke down in the early 1960s over comprehensive reorganisation at just the moment de-industrialisation began decisively to alter the demands on school leavers’ skills.

Following a period of conflict and stasis in the troubled 1970s, party political views on schooling coalesced again in the 1990s around pragmatism (“what works”) and an underlying policy of seeing-off the influence of local authorities (viewed from Whitehall over many decades as having been given too much power in 1902). This has cleared the way in our own day for a political class eager to scratch a constant itch to fiddle with the day-to-day work of schools.

At the multi-academy trust where I am vice-chair of trustees responsible for 13,000 pupils, we take care to jump through a set of requisite political hoops. The schools we are offered by the DfE have lost their way, at great public expense in terms of squandered resources and much personal cost in terms of opportunities for pupils.

Our first task is to maintain an unbroken run of converting Ofsted “requires improvement” or “inadequate” judgements, to “good”, for this is the route to establishing minimum trust from the state (ministers and civil servants). It is this which allows us to run our schools with the kind of autonomy and educational discretion that independent schools continually re-earn through the compact they have with parents and their children.

“Thinking about education”. In the residents’ lounge at the Falcon Inn, Arncliffe: July 2018 (pen & wash study by Ellen Renner).

Social justice: can schools ever do enough?

The short answer to this question is “No”. But this response is not as negative as it sounds.

In the first place, as is obvious, the effective socialisation of children lies not only with schools but, especially, with parents and extended family. In this sense schools can do a great deal but never fully compensate for the disadvantages that might accrue from home circumstances, although they can, of course, nurture and seek out the best in each pupil.

Such disadvantages are just as likely to be emotional and psychological as material, yet it is the latter which preoccupies social activists and politicians. Sensitivity about government interference in the domestic sphere is self-evident, so the recent pledge by the Secretary of State for Education in England to tackle “the last taboo in education policy … the home learning environment” is as novel as it is fraught with difficulty.

Second, it is not obvious that schools should be placed under the idealistic burden of solving structural ills in the wider society that are beyond their control. It may be depressing for many that the Sutton Trust concluded at its 20th anniversary summit in 2017 that when it comes to social mobility education had “completely failed”, but this suggests the problem lies mainly elsewhere, notably in the labour market and in housing. Problems of equality of access and opportunity in these spheres are complex, being both hierarchical within employment and spatial across communities. They are also long-standing and enduring, both pre-dating the rise of state education in the twentieth century and acting subsequently to shape the mould into which it would fit.

Opponents of independent schools are not convinced by the argument that “education cannot compensate for society” (the infamous title of a New Society article of 1970). For them, the opportunities that such schools provide to relatively privileged families are intrinsic to the institutional inequalities in society. However, this is a specific aspect of a much wider argument relating to the extent to which schools can – and should – be made egalitarian.

Around 80% of social segregation in access to school places occurs within the state sector, with housing and property ownership acting as a crucial driver. Indeed, a Whitehall memorandum of 1964 concluded that the planned move to comprehensive schools would “lead to more social segregation than exists now” and the following year the Headmasters’ Association presciently advised Whitehall that the main beneficiaries of secondary school reorganisation would be estate agents.

What price the status quo?

Because the rhythms of school life exhibit much continuity it can be hard to discern when turning points turn. One of my predecessors at HMC, Vivian Anthony, looked back in 2000 on ten years in office and identified 21 policy themes that had preoccupied him through the 1990s. Two decades later, 19 of these remained ‘live’ in my in-tray.

Nevertheless, there are unmistakable signs of growing stress and strain in a number of present-day areas: a steady increase in the extra-educational tasks assigned by the government to state schools (themselves already under significant financial pressure); the impact on public perceptions of independent schools of beyond-inflation fee increases (a trebling in real terms since 1980); and uncertainty as to whether recent reforms to the content and assessment of GSCEs and A levels (most notably, a return to memorisation in the exam hall) will prove a secure educational foundation for adults in the digital economy of the 2030s.

How are these stresses manifesting themselves?

First, the role of state schools has broadened significantly beyond a principal focus on teaching and learning as successive governments have lent on them increasingly to become wider social agencies. The current Secretary of State acknowledges that “society asks much more of schools than we did a generation ago”; her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools has warned recently of “a broader temptation to look to schools to do more than educate” and so “distract them from their core purpose”; while, from the Labour opposition, Tristram Hunt concluded in 2016 that “placing more and more responsibilities on schools to solve society’s ills” was a political sleight-of-hand “as we shy away from family policy, dismantle the social work system, ignore the impact of labour market changes, and refuse to discuss housing and catchment areas.”

Second, research at UCL on independent school fees has generated counter-intuitive findings. Increasing bursaries, the niche secured by lower-priced providers and new methods through which families release the necessary funds have mitigated “huge rises in the cost of private schools” since the 1980s, leading to little impact on the numbers of parents choosing to pay (although a general ceiling of affordability – both financially for parents and politically for the institutions – has now surely been reached). A further result is that the social demographic of those participating has remained broadly similar. Thus, if there is a widening social polarity in education it is much more likely that this is being brought about by state school pedagogy having become being encumbered by the increasing – and underfunded – non-educational demands of government than by the continuity of pupil demographic found in independent schools.

200,000 miles with HMC: the rail tickets of a General Secretary (2011-2018) in front of the early records of the Association.

Third, gathering tension surrounds the logic of returning all the nation’s young people to do-or-die final examinations in traditional subjects in a rapidly changing economy permeated with technology. Independent schools are at an advantage here, as favourable resources can be directed to success in the specialist task of preparing exam candidates. In such institutions, the cultural continuity of traditional subject knowledge, wrapped around by a wide array of extra-curricular opportunities to foster individual motivation and resilience, remains an unbeatable combination influential across the world.

Can independent schools be too good at what they do?

Given this combination of circumstances, independent schools are an easy target. Detractors include would-be fee payers, metropolitan commentators and anxious parents who, nevertheless, contribute to a situation in which almost 30% of today’s teenagers have experienced private tutoring at home (41% in London). Alongside them, an extremely unpopular political class seeks restlessly to cultivate swing voters. Targets include the workforce in state-funded schools and colleges. In the early 2010s, this numbered 1.7 million and formed the biggest segment of a UK public sector that comprised one in five of all employed adults.

In a fast-changing society the continuity and success of independent schools thus generates social opprobrium and political unease, not least when:

  • a university degree undertaken at considerable personal expense no longer leads to a professional job or financial security for many graduates;
  • highly sophisticated social science research (multi-variate analysis of the birth cohort studies in which the UK is a world leader) shows that once the effects of cognitive test results and social background are factored out, independent school success lies in the educational value these institutions add;
  • there is little sign on the horizon of solving the centuries-old problem of how to accommodate the poorest in society on the upward escalator of educational opportunity; and
  • the Cambridge University Press can publish a comparative global volume whose authors “make a surprisingly persuasive case that we have gained little or nothing in terms of improved economic or social (including redistributive) outcomes from the huge expansion of the state that took place after World War II.” 1

All this points to an inescapable conclusion. Every UK citizen has a strong stake in properly resourced schools that are: well governed; well led; confident in managing continuity and adaptability; enabled to concentrate on education; and centred on their core purpose of drawing out the best in every boy and girl.

1. Vito Tanzi and Ludger Schknecht, Public Spending in the 20th Century: a global perspective (CUP, 2000)