Last week I attended a service in Exeter Cathedral to honour the founder of Manchester Grammar School (MGS), Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter. The service is held every year but this year marked the 500th
anniversary of the foundation of the school in 1515. I recall the occasion of the 450th
anniversary of the school when I was in the 6th
form and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the school to mark the occasion. That was in the days when the school was the largest and probably the most famous of the Direct Grammar schools so it was possibly seen as appropriate for the sovereign to grace us with her presence. In that year 1965, 65% of the boys in the School had their fees paid directly by the state or by local authorities. The remaining 35% paid full or partial fees based on the assessment of parental income. In my case I received a full scholarship paid by Cheshire Local Education Authority. These days the School is independent and so not even one of the minor royals is coming to mark the occasion.
It is worth trying to understand how we got to where we are now with a divided system of state and private schools. The earliest schools were founded by the Church. The first was King’s Canterbury in 597, but although new schools were to appear over the course of the next eight hundred years, they were still very few in number. Then in the late 14th
centuries, schools that were independent of the church started to appear. Eton and Winchester are probably the best known of these. Eton College was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI to provide free education for 70 poor boys who would then go on to King’s College, Cambridge, founded by the same king in 1441. He took Winchester as his model which was founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester who was also Chancellor to both Edward III and Richard II. He had also founded New College, Oxford in 1379, my other alma mater, to which Winchester would act as a feeder. The first 70 poor scholars attended Winchester in 1394.
What followed in the next 200 hundred years was a huge growth of similar schools, usually founded by wealthy benefactors to enable the education of those from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. It was in this environment that Hugh Oldham founded MGS, the first school in Manchester, with a mission to educate the best boys in the region, regardless of background. The Founder’s Statutes state
“there shall be no scollar or infaunt, of what country or shire soever he be of, beyng man-child, be refused.”
That mission was fulfilled throughout its history although over time all these schools started to take on fee-paying pupils as well as scholarship students. The original foundations were, on the whole, only sufficient to provide a very basic education to a small number of pupils. Gradually the income from fees exceeded the value of the foundation income and the concept of the modern fee paying private school emerged.
In the 1944 Education Act, designed by Conservative minister RA Butler, the idea of the direct grant school was introduced to open up a group of, what were by then, elite private schools to pupils from poorer backgrounds. 179 schools, including MGS, signed up to the system whereby the state funded a quarter of all places and a further quarter could be funded at the discretion of the Local Authorities. The remaining places would be for fee payers.
The scheme lasted for a mere thirty years, but this is generally recognised as the period where any individual boy or girl had the best chances of being socially mobile. There were undoubtedly ‘losers’ in the system too as another idea launched in the 1944 Act, the vocational school which would teach useful skills, largely failed to materialise and the majority, perhaps as many as 80% who ‘failed’ the 11+ examination went to secondary modern schools, which they would leave at 14 or 15. But during that period a generation of politicians, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen included boys from council estates as well as those from the middle and upper classes. As we all wore the same uniform I had no idea of a form mate’s background until he invited me to his home for a birthday party or weekend stay.
The loss of the direct grant began in 1975 and schools had to choose between joining the maintained sector as comprehensives or going independent. Of the 179 schools about a quarter joined the state sector, nearly all of these being catholic schools. The remainder became independent and include the likes of MGS, Leeds and Bradford Grammars and King Edward’s Birmingham, in short some of the most successful schools in England.
In an attempt to ensure that students from poor backgrounds still had access to a place at the leading schools, there was a brief stay of execution in the form of the Assisted Places Scheme set up by the Conservatives in 1980 but abolished by Tony Blair's government in 1997 as one of its first acts. It is ironic in this short history that every act to increase social mobility has been by Conservatives and every act to kill it has been by Labour.
Once state funding was removed, schools that were formerly drivers of mobility became the preserve of those who could afford the fees. (See my blog Social Mobility in Education 25th February 2012.[i])
These private schools are run to such a high standard that they are much in demand. Consequently they have been able to increase their fees much faster than inflation and so over the past twenty years or so the intake has changed beyond recognition. To attend a London day school parents have to have £20,000 of disposable income per child. If you want boarding that rises to about £34,000. The top boarding schools now compete in a global market and offer the special character of an English education to the children of the world’s mega rich.
This has led to an unhealthy debate about the private schools with a strong flavour of class warfare. The fact that so many of the cabinet were educated at famous public schools fuels the debate. When the current Prime Minister, Archbishop of Canterbury and Mayor of London all went to Eton reasoned debate starts to go out the window. Some figures are quoted but largely in a meaningless way. This comes from the New Statesman:
“while private schools only educate 7 per cent of the population, their students take up almost half the places at Oxbridge and one-third of the places across the whole Russell Group. “[ii]
What the writers forget is that in the 1960s when I went to Oxford about half my fellow students came from the Grammar Schools. It was left wing dogma that drove these schools into the private sector. The article goes on to say:
“We need to look closely at the facts. As one examines the figures for the 1200 member schools of the Independent Schools Council , a few things become clear: although 33.7 per cent of pupils at private schools receive help with their fees, two-thirds of these are either reductions for military, clergy, siblings and staff, or scholarships, and generally they provide only a quarter of the average day fee; only one in 12 private school students receives a means-tested bursary; and among these, 58.6 per cent are still paying at least half the fee. The number of students in receipt of a full bursary, paying no fees at all, is fewer than one in a hundred.”
Dr Martin Boulton is the current high Master of MGS. He benefitted from the Assisted Places Scheme as a scholarship boy at the school in the 1980s, one of the last generation to have his social mobility funded by the state. He argues that the analysis of the New Statesman is essentially meaningless.[iii]
The issue is about access. This was recognised by his predecessor Dr Martin Stephen who set about to refound the school in the 1990s. He set a target of £20 million. To date £25 million has been raised, mostly from Old Boys. MGS is currently giving bursaries to 212 boys. The average means-tested bursary supports 92% of the fees, all made possible by the generosity of the Old Boys. It seems that MGS is the only school to have done this in this way, though there is great interest in how it has been achieved, particularly from other former direct grant schools.
Having seen what can be done in just a couple of decades, Dr Boulton wants to get back to the point where MGS was as a direct grammar school and to continue that in perpetuity. He calculates that would require something in the region of £75m to £100m. In the early 16th
century the school was founded by visionary and wealthy founders. Every day in assembly we said a prayer in thanks to this group of men and women, eleven of whom are named in the prayer. In 1931 the school needed to raise a sum to move its premises from a now over-crowded site in the centre of Manchester to a much larger site in its own grounds where it still stands a few miles out in Rusholme. This was in the depth of the depression but I have in my possession a copy of the building appeal for £150,000. This was led by many eminent citizens of the city and their subscriptions are listed including two of £1000, equivalent to perhaps £60,000 today. If they could do it then, surely we can do it now and refound the school for the next 500 years.