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21 May 2022

Private Education

Tag(s): Education, History, Politics & Economics
This week I attended a lunch with the London branch of the Old Mancunians’ Association, that is Old Boys of Manchester Grammar School. We had expected High Master Dr Martin Boulton to join us but unfortunately at the last minute he had to pull out as he was obliged as all head teachers are to take a regular course in child protection and this had been delayed several times owing to Covid 19. If he didn’t take it on this particular day, he would be disqualified from being a headmaster. That’s about as good an excuse as you can come across but fortunately Simon Jones the school’s Director of Development represented him. I had wanted to see Dr Boulton and ask him about the debate that has been taking place about private schools.

Only recently the Secretary of State for Education has said Britain should be very proud of its private schools and not “tilt the system” to ensure more pupils from state schools are admitted to Oxbridge. Nadhim Zahawi said that admissions should be based on merit alone as he urged people to pull aside their “tribalism” over high-performing independent schools. He made the comments after Professor Stephen Toope, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, said private schools must accept that they would get fewer students into Oxbridge. Toope, who leaves Cambridge in September, said that leading universities must make it very clear to independent schools that their intake would reduce over time and that their “premium” was likely to be diminished. Critics have pointed to the fact that private schools educate 7% of children in England but make up about 33% of pupils at Oxford and Cambridge.

What these people have forgotten is that for the 30 years after the war many of the so-called private schools were actually funded 50% by the state. The Education Act of 1944, promoted by RA Butler, introduced the concept of Direct Grant Grammar Schools. 25% of the places in the schools were directly funded by central government while the remainder attracted fees, some paid by a local education authority and some by the pupils’ parents or guardians. On average, schools received just over half of their income from the state.

The status was introduced in England and Wales as a modification of an existing direct grant scheme to some long-standing endowed grammar schools. The 179 direct grant grammar schools together with over 1200 grammar schools maintained by local authorities formed the most academic tier of the Tripartite system. They varied greatly in size and composition, but, on average, achieved higher academic results than either maintained grammar schools or independent schools.

State secondary education was reorganised on comprehensive lines in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The direct grant was phased out from 1975 and the schools were required to choose between becoming maintained comprehensive schools or fully independent schools. 45 schools, almost all Roman Catholic, joined the state system, while a few closed. The rest (including all the secular schools) became independent and mostly remain as highly selective independent schools.

In the 19th century, few boys and very few girls in England and Wales received secondary education, which was typically available only from charity, endowed or private schools. During this time, secondary provision expanded and adjusted to growing demand. At the start of that century, some boarding schools like Eton College and Winchester College thrived educating the sons of the aristocracy, but most endowed grammar schools were in decline, their classical curricula seen as irrelevant to the industrial age. These schools were reformed under the Endowed Schools Act 1869, which also led to many endowments being diverted to the creation of girls’ schools. In the meantime, a range of other schools had appeared. New proprietary schools were established, initially as joint-stock companies, converting to charities if they were successful. In the latter part of the century, many of the less wealthy schools received annual grants from the Department of Science and Art and from their county councils. The grant system was restructured when the Board of Education was created in 1901 to fund early secondary schools, and the Education Act 1902 gave counties and county boroughs responsibility for schools, designating them as local education authorities (LEAs). Secondary schools controlled by voluntary bodies could receive a grant from either the Board of Education or the local authority or both. In return they were required to meet the Board regulations, and were subject to the same systems of checks and inspections as state-funded schools. Under the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act 1907, secondary schools in receipt of grant were required to admit a specified proportion of their intake, usually 25%, free of charge from state elementary schools. Suitable pupils were selected using a scholarship examination.

The Education Act 1944 aimed to introduce a universal system of secondary education for England and Wales. Under the Tripartite System, there were to be three types of schools, with pupils sitting an eleven plus exam to determine which type of school they would be sent to. The most academic tier would be the grammar school, and the Act revised the terms of the direct grant to operate alongside LEA – maintained grammar schools, many of which were former LEA – aided schools.

The new direct grant school was a modification of proposals in the Fleming report of 1944. A direct grant grammar school would provide 25% of its places free of charge to children who had spent at least two years in maintained primary schools and would reserve at least a further 25% of places to be paid for by the LEA if required. The remaining places would attract fees, but no child would be admitted unless they achieved the required standard in the 11+. The scheme was attractive to most of the direct grant schools. Of the 231 secondary schools receiving direct grant in 1945, 196 applied to join the scheme, with the rest becoming independent schools. In 1966, when direct grant schools were at their height, they educated 3.1% of secondary pupils across England and Wales, when independent schools accounted for 7.1%. For A-level students, these proportions rose to 6.2% and 14.7% respectively. On average, the intake of the schools was more academically selective than either maintained grammar schools or independent schools. The results were correspondingly higher, with 60% of their pupils staying on to age 18 and 38% going on to university, significantly greater proportions than either of the other groups of schools. The archetype of the direct grant grammar school was the largest, my school Manchester Grammar School, whose High Master from 1945 to 1962, Eric James (elevated to the peerage in 1959) was an outspoken advocate of the “meritocracy” and though radical in thought was deeply opposed to the introduction of comprehensive schools. In 1968, the year that I went to university, my school sent 77% of its boys to university, a rate surpassed only by the independent Winchester College. Nearly half of those who went to university went to Oxford or Cambridge. In my year one third of the cohort, over 70 boys, went to Oxford or Cambridge.

in 1975 confronted by the withdrawal of the direct grant system the school had to decide whether it would join the state system or go independent. The school was founded in 1515 for the education of the brightest boys in the Manchester area regardless of their background. It had maintained that record throughout its history and that was now being compromised with the withdrawal of state and local education funding and it would mean that those boys who came from families who could not afford the fees would not be able to go to the school. The school has therefore been refounded by its then High Master Dr Martin Stephen. Old Boys like me now pay in regular amounts and it is entirely through the funding provided by Old Boys that bursaries can now be offered to boys who meet the standards of the school which is still selective and still achieving extremely high results, among the very best in the country, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay the fees.

So my point is that in this moribund debate about the background of young people applying to go to Oxford and Cambridge people have conveniently forgotten that the Labour government in the 1970s took away the ability of many people to rise above their disadvantaged backgrounds and improve their chances in life by going to high quality schools that were partially funded by the state and/or the local authority. It is ironic that almost every improvement in social mobility has come from Conservative governments like that of 1944 with the Education Act or the one that provided the assisted places scheme to soften the blow with the withdrawal of the direct grant by the Labour government. It is left-wing Labour governments who constantly complain about the privileges of independent schools who actually destroyed or crippled many independent schools that were partially funded by public funds.

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