Talk of Morality
A senior Headmistress recently expressed frustration at the level of criticism levelled at independent education. Michael St John Parker analyses the historical hostility to the sector.
Some people talk of morality,' wrote Maria Edgeworth, 'and some of religion, but give me a little snug property.' Is it possible that those lines, or something like them, ran through the mind of Mrs Vicky Tuck, Headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies' College, one of England's most distinguished independent schools for girls, when she decided, a few weeks ago, to accept an attractive offer of a job in Switzerland? She might, at least, have been tempted to think of them when, in answer to questions from the Press about the motivation for her move, she expressed relief at the prospect of escaping from a climate of opinion in this country which stigmatises fee-paying schools, and especially their Heads, as 'immoral'. Her candour, whether it was merely light-hearted or really serious in intent, promptly provoked further excitement, and even some genuine concern. The Press, like the public it claims to serve, sometimes dislikes being told the truth.
The insults to which Mrs Tuck takes exception, and the reactions to their repudiation, are hardly new. I recall penning a furious riposte, in the mid-1980s, to a politician who had described those who taught in independent schools as 'prostitutes' - it did me little good, except to relieve my feelings. But where does it come from, this ludicrous, yet also sinister, hatred?
Part of the answer must be found in our national preoccupation with, and easily aroused unhappiness about, social class. By way of a generalisation so palpably wild that no-one with a grain of sense could take it literally - which does not for a moment prevent many perfectly sensible people giving it house-room in their minds - the independent schools are identified as the peculiar preserve of the upper social classes, the wealthy and the titled. The very concept of education conducted outside the direct control of the state thus becomes tainted with the creeping stains of snobbery, plain or inverted.
Snobbery, either of the one sort or the other, embitters almost every conversation that takes place about education in England, wherever it occurs, whether the setting is pub or dining-room or the debating chamber of the House of Commons. It is the same cliche-ridden snobbery that impels sub-editors everywhere, as a conditioned reflex reaction to news of misadventures at even the most modest of establishments, to brand the unhappy place in question as a 'Toff School'. And at the highest levels of public policy-making, snobbery intervenes to blur the distinction between education and social engineering, to the grave detriment of both interests. English snobbery is like bindweed in an English garden, all-pervading and almost impossible to eradicate; Mrs Tuck could not hope to avoid its dismal entanglements.
But preoccupation with social class, and its wearisome side-effects, is by no means the whole of the story. The roots of the hostility suffered by Mrs Tuck, and experienced at one time or another by most of those who teach in independent schools, go deep into the past. After all, the phenomenon of fee-paying education only became really significant in the late Victorian period; yet the idea that access to learning should be 'free' appears to go back much further. From at least the period of the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was a prominent feature of the Protestant tradition that schools and libraries should be generally accessible, in the sense of being charitably (that is, in effect, publicly) funded. The same principle was applied in due course to museums and art galleries - the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the first public museum in the world, was founded in 1683. In the Protestant view of things, freedom of belief rested on freedom of access to knowledge; from this in turn there follows, inexorably, the principle of freedom of thought. It is a noble ideal - and one which, beyond question, sits uncomfortably with the notion that access to education may be subject to the ability to pay.
And then, alongside the nobility of the Protestant ideal, we need to recognise something with even more ancient, and perhaps stubborn, roots in the English character. This is a certain resolute, prejudiced, even bone-headed suspicion of intellectuals, often extending to mistrust of intellect in its own right. Cleverness, actual or perceived, is rarely an asset to an Englishman or -woman, unless he or she is prepared to live the largely separate life imposed on members of the few accredited clever classes, such as dons and lawyers. The brilliant Conservative politician Iain Macleod, the most farsighted of his generation, was dismissed to impotence and damned for ever by his party as 'Too clever by half'; a later Tory, William Whitelaw, masked his Wykehamical mind behind a facade of bumbling bluffness in order to achieve the success that had eluded Macleod.
So - pile modem snobbery on top of the old Protestant tradition, and set both in turn on the foundation of Anglo-Saxon numbskullism, and it can hardly come as a surprise that the stereotypical image of a teacher in England has been that of a badly turned-out, poorly paid, socially downtrodden, inadequate personality, one who will only smile apologetically when reproached with the old sneer that 'Those who can, do those who can't, teach'.
The real state of the teaching profession nowadays, after twenty years of salary rises well ahead of inflation rates, is somewhat different from the popular perception. But the stereotype persists, particularly in the journalistic mind - which is likely to be all the more upset when it encounters leaders of the independent sector such as Mrs Tuck, highly rated professionals operating in a high-cost environment, managers of great business undertakings, powerful - if often unsung - shapers of opinion.
Education is, after all, an economic activity. It is a form of investment, undertaken by each generation of society for the benefit of the next. It cannot be managed on the cheap; knowledge has never been anything other than an inherently expensive commodity, hard to win and rightly esteemed as precious. The process of social investment is arduous, and returns come slowly; some form of public funding is essential if the operation is to be carried forward on a sufficiently large scale. Research, teaching, learning - all are costly activities requiring expenditure on materials as well as time. And - terrible thought - the usual economic rules apply, so that you may have to pay extra for the best quality. The fulfilment of the Protestant ideal, in short, needs massive amounts of underpinning from public funds, and a certain amount of buttressing from private enterprise is virtually unavoidable in the real world. In other words, Mrs Tuck may shrug her shoulders and leave, but society really needs her!
There is a persistent, and most unattractive, irony to be found in the fact that the independent sector of education has shown itself historically to be so very bad at presenting its own case. Heads such as Mrs Tuck should never have had to feel that they might be accused, even implicitly, of professional 'immora1ity'. It is much too long since the early days of ISIS, the Independent Schools' Information Service, which conducted a brilliant campaign in the 1970s under the aegis of its Director, Tim Devlin, to raise the esteem in which the sector was held by Press and politicians alike. Argument about the role of the State in managing the country's education system has certainly not been lacking in recent years, but the leadership of the independent sector has rarely supplied either the philosophical vision or the trenchancy in debate which might have made headway against the fraudulence and fudge of New Labour. A more hopeful era might, just possibly, be opening up now, in terms of political opportunity - so it is all the more depressing to contemplate the lack of unity and, frankly, of leadership which characterises the independent sector at the present time.
Some might say that it is in the nature of independency that its exponents should often disagree, or at least have different objectives and follow different policies. But such individualism can become self-defeating if it prevents the perception and pursuit of genuinely common interests. As it is, few who know the intimate workings of the sector will deny that there is a worrying lack of political unity, even of common purpose, among Heads and Governors at the present time. This unhappy state of affairs is, partly, the result of a quarter of a century of government intervention in the management and, latterly, the governance of independent schools. An ever-rising tide of regulations, not always hostile in intent, has almost swept away, or at least submerged, the freedom of action which used to be the special prerogative and the legitimate pride of Heads; hedged around and constrained by rules and procedures and sanctions, they have had to become more and more like managers, or even bureaucrats, rather than shepherds and rulers. Some have found the process easier to stomach than others; but Boards of Governors have increasingly responded by appointing men and women who can accommodate the new conditions. The occasional maverick survives, of course; but the Stephens and the Seldons of 2010 are oddities, not trend-setters. Governors, likewise, have undergone metamorphosis; transformed from semi-detached trustees into anxiously responsible directors, they undergo increasingly arduous training, and conduct their business along increasingly commercial lines. 'Compliance' is a word heard more frequently at today's Governing Body meetings than 'Opportunity' or even 'Ideal'. It is a greyer world.
If the style of Heads and Governors has changed, arguably for the worse, under the weight of state regulation, the sector has only itself to blame for the weakness of its own organisation. A plethora of professional and sectional associations clutters the councils of independency with their prolix acronyms, and there is no recognised leadership or sovereign body. Again, arguments can be advanced in favour of a rich variety of activity ; but the present state of affairs resembles nothing more than a self-frustrating tangle. Much good work is done in committees and working parties, but the effects are diffused and dissipated amid a multitude of outlets; meanwhile, the larger vision is lacking, or at least inadequately expressed. The net effect is a confusion of voices, divided counsels, internal politicking - in short, non-leadership. It is the last thing the sector can afford at this stage, when a new government of uncertain quality is trying to make an impression by assertive and even impetuous activity on several fronts at once.
In 1861, during the heyday of Victorian reforming zeal, a Royal Commission was established under Lord Clarendon to investigate the affairs of the leading public schools - Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St. Paul's and Merchant Taylors' - and to make proposals for the re-ordering of their governance; it reported in 1864, and a Public Schools Act followed in 1868. A similar Commission under Lord Taunton was appointed in 1864 to investigate most of the other endowed (grammar) and proprietary schools; its report in 1868 was followed by the Endowed Schools Act of 1869. The history of independent education in England effectively dates from these two epoch-making commissions, which brought about the establishment of a system which was, for a while, regarded as a source of national strength.
The national interest requires a healthy independent sector; perhaps it is time that steps were taken to re-order its leadership, so that it can speak with one voice, frame policies that are credible to government, and play its part in advancing true educational values. (And it would be good to think that, as a result, the Heads of its schools might become free of vulgar abuse!).