State Control - A Real Threat?
Contributing Editor, Michael St John Parker, traces the transition from 'public' to 'independent' schools and laments the loss of freedom to schools caused by ever increasing Government regulation.
Who can remember how things were in the 1950s? we called them 'public schools' in those days, and enjoyed the bewilderment which this manifestly absurd usage caused to visiting Americans. They were the acknowledged apex of the English educational system, and were slavishly imitated by the grammar schools which served the aspirant, as opposed to the established, classes.
But if the schools were 'public', they were hardly popular in the decades that followed World War II. Their classicsbound syllabuses were coming to seem grotesquely irrelevant, and their manners intolerably snobbish, to a society which was preoccupied with the possibilities of technology and the prospects of egalitarianism. They were generally perceived as nurseries for an imperial ruling class; but the Empire was disintegrating, and the mood of the times was the reverse of imperialistic. And as for their morals! - publishers' ante-rooms were crowded with embittered Old Boys competing for a chance to expose the homosexuality, sadism and general depravity of their almae matres.
So unpopular were the public schools, in fact, by the late 1950s that few informed observers would have bet much money on their chances of surviving to the end of the century. Governments, both Labour and Conservative, were willing to contemplate measures of nationalisation or abolition. The end seemed to be nigh.
However, threats can stimulate the bold to action, and there were some, such as the dynamic Donald Lindsay, Headmaster of Malvern, who were prepared to attempt a counter-offensive. They embarked on a publicity campaign which corrected misrepresentations and highlighted the best qualities of their schools - in the process, of course, prompting much internal debate about objectives and practices. The methods employed by these valiant activists would seem naive, or at least stiff, to the spin-artists of today, but they were advanced for their time. They included a deliberate abandonment of the tainted label 'public' for the schools, and the use of the word 'independent', with all its connotations of objectivity and uprightness, in its place.
Under the direction of a talented young journalist, Tim Devlin, the campaign grew rapidly in strength. Over time the press, both local and national, changed its tone from one of automatic, sneering hostility, and politicians began to adjust their policies to a shift in public opinion. This was, to a great extent, the work of ISIS, the Independent Schools' Information Service, in the later 1960s and 1970s.
The Thatcherite rediscovery, during the 1980s, of enterprise as the mainspring of economic success was nowhere more popular than among the reinvigorated independent schools. Headmasters were restyled as Chief Executives, 'marketing' became a buzz word, demandled syllabuses replaced the classical rigidities, and the pursuit of excellence began to be proclaimed in terms of examination results. In this world, endeavour was to be rewarded by affluence, rather than esteem - and since affluence enabled investment in staff and facilities, further success was likely to follow. By the 1990s the independent sector had outstripped the state sector of education, in terms of performance, to an extent which was increasingly seen as scandalous.
When New Labour took power in 1997, under an ambitious, opportunistic young leader who had been given a flying start by his scholarship-aided education at Scotland's most prestigious independent school, they quietly abandoned their Socialist predecessors' policy of abolishing all secondary schools other than staterun comprehensives. Indeed, they proclaimed their willingness to operate a mixed economy, and occasionally even applauded the excellence of the independent schools. But they insisted that there must be convergence between the practices of the two sectors of education: common standards must apply in areas such as employment, health and safety, and the care of children; the earlier efforts of Conservative Education Secretaries such as Kenneth Baker to reform the teaching practices, and to bring a degree of coherence into the curriculum, of state schools were developed into an over-arching and increasingly prescriptive system of supervision that eventually covered schools of every sort; and the examinations system, which had already been subjected to Procrustean tortures by well-meaning Conservatives, was further adjusted to ensure that all products of the state schools could secure the same results as those of the independent schools.
Inspection is, of course, a key element in this not particularly subtle process of infiltration by which the state seeks to bring the independent schools under its control. The old public schools had taken a leading part in establishing the Victorian Inspectorate, as they had in developing public examinations; but by the 1970s the Inspectorate was in decay, and over-taxed HMIs were willing virtually to ignore independent schools with adequate reputations. It seemed, therefore, no more than good sense for the independent sector to collaborate with Government during the 1980s to set up a new inspection scheme of their own - the origin of today's Independent Schools Inspectorate. But this, too, is now obliged to comply with the requirements of the state, as expressed through OFSTED; so criteria that could, kindly, be described as of marginal relevance are enforced on independent schools, at enormous cost - a full inspection of a fair-sized school can cost well over #20,000, all of which has to be found by the (tax-paying) parents at the time of the inspectors' visit.
The changed relationship between independent schools and the state has been reflected in a subtle, but significant alteration of nomenclature. Government no longer refers to the schools as 'independent'; rather, they are designated as 'private' - and, increasingly often, the schools themselves seem willing to adopt this usage. What's in a name? Sometimes, a great deal. Withdrawal of charitable status may well turn out to be accelerated by this latest twist of wording.
The progress of state regulation appears unremitting. Staffing - the true heart of the independent school offering - is being made ever more sclerotic by employment law, by rulings on such matters as maternity and paternity leave, and by instructions about race, sex and age discrimination. Religious commitments which have been regarded, in some case for centuries, as central to the raison d'etre of many of the great independent schools are treated increasingly coldly by a state machine which is often overtly secularist and sometimes covertly politically biased towards non-Christian faiths.
The latest threat to educational independence takes the form of the unsavourily named 'Sexual Orientation Regulations'. These purport to prevent discrimination against homosexuals of any sort in the 'provision of goods and services'. They could entail a requirement on schools not only to employ people whom they have previously considered unsuitable for work as teachers, but also to give equal prominence in their curricula to homosexual and heterosexual practices and preferences. In the daily life of a school, individuals who wish to claim that their 'dignity has been violated' on the grounds of their sexual orientation will be entitled to bring actions for harassment. These regulations are already being fast-tracked in Northern Ireland, and are expected shortly to come before the Westminster Parliament. Will the independent schools feel able to stand up in protest against them?
Pressure to conform comes not merely from what might be called the 'collaborationist' tendency within the independent sector, strong though this is; more worryingly still, the cumulative effect of state action over the last two decades has been such as to make it increasingly impossible for schools to contemplate independent action, simply on grounds of expense. It is easy enough to advocate the setting up of independent systems of examining, for example, but the practical implications in terms of cost are staggering. Still more prohibitive are the implications of trying to fight for exemption from legal requirements imposed by Westminster and backed by Brussels - or vice versa. And who would pay, if not the already hard-pressed parents of independent school pupils?
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it was parental demand - market forces, if you prefer - that impelled the independent schools into the bear-hug of the state in the 1980s and 1990s. Anxious parents sought the safety of Government approval for the practices of their children's schools, ambitious parents wanted the validation of state-sponsored league tables for their children's examination successes. The price of a regulation which most deemed salutary to start with, however, has been a loss of freedom.
Perhaps the regulating process will prove to be selfdefeating in the end. Certainly, the Government's own Implementation Review Unit, commissioned by the Department of Education and Skills to look into the effects of bureaucracy on schools, has recently warned that red-tape is strangling the educational system of the country as a whole. But it may take an effort even greater than that which brought ISIS to birth in the 1960s, if the independent sector is to break free of its toils in the 2000s; could it be parents who will take the initiative this time?