Impact and innovation

Pass Notes - HMC 1869-2019

The Guardian describes its Pass Notes column as “a quick chat designed to tell you everything you need to know about a story you don’t need to know about”. Professor William Richardson (University of Exeter) applies the treatment to the history of HMC, 1869-2019.

HMC and the creation of national secondary education

HMC’s first Chairman: an elderly Edward Thring of Uppingham (centre), hosting members of the Association of Head Mistresses at their annual meeting in June 1887.

John Mitchinson of King’s Canterbury (front, centre) with his sixth form: his organised lobbying of Gladstone’s government in March 1869 brought HMC into being.

The Pall Mall Gazette: supplier of satirical reports of the HMC annual meeting during the 1880s and 1890s.

“Pedagogues in parliament”

If the members of HMC have been united in one thing over the years, it is a personal commitment to independence entailing a right to differ – preferably to an audience of fellow free spirits loosely organised into a professional alliance.

The nineteenth century press satirised this characteristic, especially the Pall Mall Gazette. The annual meeting of Headmasters was a veritable ‘senate of Lilliput’ (1880) at which most of the subjects on the agenda were “not of any interest outside the scholastic circle, and perhaps not of great interest inside it” (1888). When passion was aroused it took the form of “merely
a vague sort of feeling that somebody ought to do something” (1896).

There was also some uncertainty among pundits as to whether HMC’s meetings were newsworthy at all, but this may have arisen from pique at having failed to secure the services of a mole willing to provide an unauthorised sketch of proceedings. The Daily News had fun with this form of reporting when Our Special Correspondent, informed readers in 1900 that:
“an amusing characteristic of the Headmasters Conference is the curious lack of the one quality you would naturally expect would be especially conspicuous in such a gathering, and that is discipline”.

Matters of state

However, beneath such banter lay deeper streams of more considered thought.

Foremost in the first decade – the 1870s – was the reach of national government in Britain, now being felt systematically in secondary schools for the first time. By the 1880s, the lineaments of a common “public school” education were sufficiently developed to be debated by the members of HMC. Yet a lessening of momentum is apparent in the decision to convene the Conference on only four occasions during the years 1885 to 1893.

This was possible because a committee of nine, elected by the entire membership, was in place to deal with questions as they arose and the pace of the committee’s work quickened in the mid-1890s as a succession of unsuccessful Parliamentary bills sought to mandate a national system of state-maintained secondary schools.

The HMC Committee had significant influence over the form of state secondary education finally achieved for England and Wales through statute in 1902. Local education authorities would create new grammar schools and oversee others, while the larger “non-local” schools with boarding places would be regulated by a new Whitehall department, the Board of Education.

Central to these political negotiations were the three seers of 1890s HMC, with 65 years of Committee service between them. George Bell (Christ’s Hospital and Marlborough) and Edmund Warre (Eton) both chaired the Committee or the Conference on eight annual occasions, while Henry Moss (appointed headmaster of Shrewsbury aged 24) chaired six times and served on the Committee over a period of 37 years.

Who should become
members of HMC?

This was a further central question in the years before 1902. With Headmistresses of the emerging girls’ secondary schools organising themselves from 1874 and a wider body of Headmasters forming in 1890, who should be invited to join HMC?

Hugo Harper of Sherborne was the organising force. He experimented on behalf of the Conference over the “invidious and painful task” of selection before, at his final conference in 1877, securing the resolution that there should be “no rules that shall raise questions of right, and require verification”.

Instead, the Committee was to determine “the general position of individual schools”, guided in particular by size (“about 100 boys at least”) and the strength of annual supply of undergraduates direct to Oxford and Cambridge.

Hugo Harper of Sherborne: the organisational dynamo who did more than anyone to establish the administrative foundations of HMC.

War, internationalism and financial uncertainty

Glasgow Academy: eight of this officer group from the school were killed at Gallipoli on 28 June 1915.

Air raid on New Hall School, 1943: nearly every room in the school had been damaged by enemy action.

Committee men
and lay men

With the arrival in the 1890s of public funding for secondary schools came greater regulation by the state, leading to the work of the HMC Committee growing apace. In 1898, sub-committees were formed in several spheres to spread the work: parliamentary, universities, examinations and professional development – a quartet of specialist groups with recognisable successors still in place in 2019.

Meanwhile, the appointment in 1903 of non-clergyman Frank Fletcher as head of the strongly clerical Marlborough was noted by contemporaries as a turning point. Lay heads had been appointed to prominent day schools from the 1870s but from now on unordained boarding school staff aspiring to run a leading institution were no longer trapped as housemasters. Fletcher was to become another dominant HMC figure, serving as Conference or Committee chair on a record 12 occasions between 1913 and 1931.

The prospect of state-funded secondary education: HMC’s influential draft scheme debated and approved by Heads over two days in October 1894.

Killing fields

The rise of the Officer Training Corps in HMC schools was a significant movement from around 1906. However, it could hardly prepare the schools for the slaughter to come after 1914.

Drawing on a large range of school archives, Anthony Seldon and David Walsh have painted a wide-ranging and vivid portrait of HMC schools at war and the enormous toll it took on recent school leavers, their immediate families and the school communities that soldiered on at home.

From 1916 school Common Rooms were divided over the war and its aims, and the health of several prominent Heads broke under the strain. With the ending of the repatriation of bodies, thoughts turned to memorialisation and the creation of Valhallas, some of high architectural importance.

Money matters

School finances came under strain in unpredictable ways. Providing staff pensions was a major new cost and many of the HMC day schools began accepting government grants, on a small scale from the 1890s but much more so from 1907. Their situation was formalised when the government created a list of “direct grant” schools in 1927, so supplying the funds for up to a quarter of pupils.

In the boarding sphere a surge in parental demand after 1918 led to substantial borrowings, larger schools and fresh waiting lists. But in the mid-1930s a sharp fall in the birth-rate arrived at the doors of these schools, with their large post-war debts not nearly paid off.

and another war

With membership and workload growing from the turn-of-the-century, a paid HMC secretary was appointed for the first time and this role was amply filled over three decades by William Bulkeley-Evans (1905-34). Strongly international in outlook, he oversaw the acceptance of HMC Overseas members from 1921 and fostered an inter-war emphasis on employment opportunities for British school leavers in the dominions.

Home members also noted the rise of National Socialism in Germany with anxiety and when another war came the burden of holding HMC together fell to Spencer Leeson (Winchester). Elected Chairman for the period January 1939 to December 1944, Leeson’s tenure was the most demanding of any HMC Chair, before or since, and the pressure of sustained political negotiations over the period was intense.

Meanwhile, the schools were severely disrupted, one in six in England being evacuated for three years or more, with many others badly damaged by enemy action. Prominent boarding schools were already financially precarious. The future of the direct grant was in question. Secondary education was to be free for all parents after 1944. The very viability of independent school education in Britain was uncertain.

Frank Fletcher of Marlborough and Charterhouse: Jacob Epstein’s bust of the only man elected to chair HMC on 12 separate annual occasions.

Welfare state Britain, a youthquake and the end of government subsidy

The Donnison report of 1970: its recommendation to dismantle the direct grant to leading grammar schools was adopted by Harold Wilson’s government five years later.

Spencer Leeson of Winchester: as HMC Chairman through almost all of World War II he held together a battered and beleaguered Conference of schools.

Jack Wolfenden of Uppingham and Shrewsbury: responsible for representing the Conference to the post-war Attlee government.

“If…”: Director Lindsay Anderson on the film set at Cheltenham College in 1968 briefing members of the school CCF on how to massacre the staff.

Government-assisted boarding places

In the event, the community of HMC schools was not dismembered by the war and its aftermath. Financial pressures on the boarding schools eased unexpectedly after 1942 and both types of HMC school – those fully independent and those receiving government subsidy – were omitted from the scope of the far-reaching Education Act of 1944, which abolished fees in all other state-maintained schools.

Meanwhile, the seemingly inevitable wartime prospect of substantial political intervention had led in 1947 to expansion of the HMC committee through the creation of geographical divisions, to allow for formal representation of a wider range of school interests. The voice of the full-boarding heads was becoming less dominant, although some of them and a majority of members running direct grant schools with boarding “sides” called on successive governments to supply assisted places across HMC schools, as recommended by the Fleming committee which had reported in 1944.

As late as 1958 the full Conference reaffirmed this principle and “regretted that no Minister of Education as yet felt able to accept the co-operation offered by the Public Schools in carrying out such a scheme”.

Modernisation and social change

Two HMC Chairmen who went on to become highly active life peers were prominent in these years: Jack Wolfenden who left Shrewsbury in 1950 to become Vice Chancellor of Reading University and Eric James whose career took him from Manchester Grammar School in 1962 to become the inaugural Vice Chancellor at York. Wolfenden was central to relations between the Conference and the Attlee government, while James pointed the way to modernisation through his championing of science as part of education for leadership in the major fee-paying schools.

The new accent on science was one of the innovations which served HMC well through the turbulent 1960s. With Harold Wilson’s government from 1964 committed to abolishing the schools, HMC put its toe into the unknown waters of public relations. A part of this involved commissioning an academic from the LSE, Graham Kalton, to conduct a survey unprecedented in thoroughness and size. Among other things, this found that boys from HMC schools – including traditional boarding schools – significantly outperformed boys from state grammar schools, in both O and A levels.

But no sooner had this information been digested than HMC Heads were confronted with novel and baffling social challenges of which drugs was the most feared (“an emotive subject on which boys could know more than adults”). To top it all, Lindsay Anderson persuaded David Ashcroft to let him use Cheltenham College as the location for a biting film, If…, about public schools undergoing change, in which the final scene had sixth-former Malcolm McDowell leading an armed massacre of staff from the school roof.

Coming out the other side

As teaching staff trained in the 1930s retired in the 1970s, the schools caught their collective breath. The number of expulsions for drugs offences had begun to recede, a trend toward construction of major specialist buildings emerged – in theatre/drama especially, but also in art, music and science – and, perhaps most far-reaching of all, schools began to follow the example set by Marlborough in 1969 of accepting girls as pupils.

But another Wilson government came to power in 1974 and, this time, the direct schools would not survive as public-funded secondary schools charging fees. 67 HMC schools across England, Scotland and Wales had five years to decide whether to merge into the state sector or return to their late nineteenth century status as schools fully independent of government.

Consolidation, investment and the implications of price

The Children Act 1989: a major step in making the welfare of children from their point of view a principal concern of the state and the courts.

Gwen Randall: HMC’s first woman Member and Head
of Framlingham College, 1994-2010.

The annual meeting of the Conference goes to Dublin in October 2003.

Schools investing in the future

The decision of all 67 of HMC’s direct grant schools to become entirely independent was eased by the return of a Conservative government in 1979 willing to implement the widely discussed but shelved “assisted places” policy of the 1940s. For 17 successive years from autumn 1981 pupils aged 11-18 could receive means-tested subsidy of their school’s tuition fee, with some schools also assisting the costs of boarding out of their own funds.

This period saw the passing of the Children Act 1989. Seen in retrospect as introducing far-reaching and overdue safeguards for pupils, this built on major increases already taking place in the pastoral care provision of leading schools. In turn, it provided the platform for the substantial, broadly-based school investment which characterised the 1990s – the post-war decade which, above all others, influenced the culture of HMC schools today.

And in a renewal of its internationalism of the inter-war period, HMC responded to the end of the Cold War by setting up projects in its British schools that, by 2017, had secured 1,700 pupil scholarships and 300 teacher placements for talented individuals now free to travel from countries of the former Eastern Bloc.

A changing culture in HMC

As the proportion of day and flexi-boarding places at HMC schools increased so, too, did that of female pupils. More controversially, HMC decided in 2006 to allow membership of those in charge of all-girl schools, although when the first woman member was elected in 1994 it was because a traditional boys’ school, Framlingham College, had appointed Gwen Randall as its Head. A decade later Priscilla Chadwick (Berkhamsted) became the first woman to chair the Conference but the full effect of the rule change on all-girls’ schools was only felt in the 2010s during which the proportion of female pupils in the schools accelerated to more than two in five.

Although HMC schools were now fully independent, they were not immune from a steady expansion of government regulation. To address this, Vivian Anthony (Colfe’s School) was appointed in 1990 as HMC’s first full-time Secretary since the 1930s. Under Anthony, the Association modernised rapidly, with all of the government’s major school policies now being systematically reviewed by the Association. Most dramatic was the English A level crisis of 2002 during which HMC concerns coordinated by Anthony’s successor Geoff Lucas, alongside HMC Chairman Edward Gould (Marlborough), resulted in the resignation of cabinet minister Estelle Morris.

The implications of
pricing high

Since 2008, when the Charity Commission began pressing HMC schools to increase bursary provision, the politics of independent education have been re-asserted. Part of this dynamic relates to the cost of secondary education, the broad conception of excellence underpinning the investment surge of the 1990s sustained in HMC schools and built into high levels of fee.

At the same time, the funding of publicly financed academies laid bare the previously opaque pupil capitation of the average comprehensive school. This showed day places in state schools funded at one third of the level now being ploughed back by HMC schools and allowed Labour policy making to re-connect with the more assertive stance towards independent schools of the Wilson era during 1964-76.

In the early 1920s an expansion based on substantial lending saw many HMC schools seriously over-stretched by the late 1930s but reasonably assured of government assistance, in extremis. Today, the schools are, in general, much stronger financially but have fewer political friends. One future lies in a third wave of internationalisation pioneered at scale by Dulwich College from 2002, through which operations overseas secure increased revenues at home and the opportunity to carve out a new role for HMC schools in the mosaic of British secondary education.

The Conference at its meeting in central London, October 2008.