The Role of the Livery Companies
The Great Twelve City Livery Companies have long been associated with education in the United Kingdom. Attain looks in detail at the important role they play and how this looks set to expand.
The City of London Livery companies have a long standing involvement in education. This has normally stemmed from historical links with certain schools, which are mainly now in the independent sector. Often they were founded by a member of a particular Company who wanted his school to survive well into the future and looked for an organisation which would run it after his death and continue his vision. The state and the church were not trusted for the task and so trusteeship responsibilities were given to the Company. As a result, a number of livery companies are significantly involved with independent education (such as the Mercers, Skinners, Fishmongers, Haberdashers, Merchant Taylors and Grocers), as is the main Corporation of London. For this article, we have focused our attention on the work of two particular livery companies - the Mercers' Company and the Skinners' Company.
The origins of the early livery companies most likely pre-date the Norman Conquest and were similar to the craft guilds which were established across Europe. Many of the street names in the City of London are links back to the the early livery companies - Ironmonger Lane or Poultry, for example. The earliest historical record of a company is the Royal Charter granted in 1155 to the Weavers' Company. The aims of the companies were to regulate the quality of goods and working conditions; they were also greatly interested in both the financial and spiritual welfare of their members. Over time their roles have changed, and in many cases they are now charitable organisations supporting a number of specific causes. The 'activities' of most companies can be split into three strands - the fellowship, livery or membership aspects; the business side through which the company generates income, such as property or events; and thirdly its charitable endeavours which usually centre around the care of the elderly, education and general welfare.
Even from the very earliest beginnings however, the companies have been involved with education and training. In 1509, the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral and a Mercer, Dean Colet, founded St Paul's School. Today, the Mercers' Company is involved with 15 schools. These range from independent senior schools such as Abingdon School, Dauntsey's School, St Paul's Boys' and St Paul's Girls' Schools, through to maintained primaries, sixth form colleges, a CTC (City Technology College) and, more recently, three academies (with another in feasibility).
Like the Mercers' involvement with St Paul's, the Skinners' Company is responsible for Tonbridge School, set up by Sir Andrew Judde in 1553 and to be governed by the Company after his death. Between 1887 and 1890, the Skinners' then decided to expand their educational provision and set up three schools - The Skinners' School, Tunbridge Wells; The Judd School, Tonbridge; and the Skinners' Company's School for Girls in North London. In England at that time, education for the sons of the upper classes was provided for by the public schools. Forster's Education Act of 1870 provided basic elementary education for the children of the working classes. There was a huge gap - for children of tradesmen, clerks, factory managers, farmers - who could not afford the public schools but desired a better form of education; the Skinners' three schools were an attempt to cater for these people. In the subsequent 120 years, they have grown into formidably successful institutions within the state system and supported by the Company.
This bridging of the two sectors is historical, often born out of long standing links at each of the respective schools, but in more recent years the Companies have sought additional involvement in the maintained sector through initiatives such as CTCs and the academies programme. The level of involvement at individual schools also varies considerably from direct governance through to expertise and advice born out of individual educational projects. But the role of Companies is certainly not limited to just providing finance or top-down expertise. As Michael Marchant, Head of Education at the Mercers' Company explained, they are also able to help broker best practice across their groups of schools: 'When we designed the curriculum offer at Thomas Telford [a CTC set up by the Company in 1992] we wanted to put the best possible student support programme in, and so the Company looked around its existing schools where it felt the quality of tutoring was particularly good and used that as a model. Now, actually they got the idea from St Paul's Boys' School, yet at the same time, this year St Paul's Girls' School was looking to relaunch its IT strategy and they have had Thomas Telford advise them on that. So part of my role is identifying what works particularly well and spreading it, where appropriate, to other sectors - and the thing which works particularly well with the Mercers' group is that our 15 schools and colleges are all different.'
For schools which have an association with a livery company, the advantages are considerable, as David Gibbs, Eduacation Officer for the Skinners' Company commented. 'We still provide the majority of the Governors and - not just for Tonbridge but for all our four existing schools - they have got lots of able people who are highly committed to give up their time for Governors meetings. I think that good governance is the biggest single thing they bring to these schools. Everybody always says that to have a good school you need good staff and a good head. Actually, the most fundamental thing is to have a good governing body because a governing body will appoint a good head, and then support that person.'
The support companies give to their schools in the independent sector is considerable but very much centred around support and advice. With the need for some independent schools to increase their bursary provision to satisfy the requirements of public benefit, many are embarking on fundraising programmes to create a substantial fund which will pay fees for a group of pupils. Direct support of bursaries however is too short-term an endeavour by the Companies as Michael Marchant explained: 'The sums of money involved are huge and they only benefit certain individuals so we tend to give funds to our schools for projects which then enable them to release bursary funds. For example, at Abingdon School, we gave them a grant towards their new sports project. This was a very substantial grant but it would not go very far in bursaries - a handful of children and then that would be it. But those sports facilities are there for all the children and hopefully for a long time. The other thing we may do is to give a small sum, almost as a kind of encouragement to other grant-making trusts. Our job really is to support the schools through advice and brokerage of best practice - despite what people may think, we do not throw big wads of money at them!'
Another requirement of the recent Charity Commission guidance is greater collaboration between schools. The Companies are in a unique position to be able to assist in this process. It needs to be handled carefully but the benefits for both sides are considerable. 'It's a competitive world but there are opportunities for cooperation' commented Michael Marchant. 'I think the reason our group works so well is that none of the schools actually compete with each other. I think that the trick is to get the collaboration between partners who don't threaten each other, and I think that can be done. So if you look, for example, at St Paul's, who are doing some really good work on maths and science masterclasses with Hammersmith and Fulham primary schools - one is an independent boys' secondary school and the other ones are co-educational primary schools. Different sector, different gender mix but everyone is still benefiting from it. I think collaboration is about finding things which are mutually useful for both partners, that's the trick.'
Three of the Great Twelve Livery Companies have become involved in the Government's Academies programme. As well as the Mercers and the Skinners, the Haberdashers have also taken up the challenge to invest their 'educational DNA' and offer their governance and expertise. As Andrew Adonis (the then Minister responsible for academies) commented in a letter to the Skinners' Company: 'The late 19th century was a very creative period in educational history as the private sector responded to the need for good middle class schools. I note your Company's role in founding three outstandingly successful schools in the space of three years. Now I see the current period as another opportunity for great creativity in meeting a national need to provide good secondary schools in areas where they have been lacking.' The Skinners is the lead sponsor in developing an academy in Hackney (to evolve out of the Skinners' Company's School for Girls), the Marsh Academy in Kent (co-sponsored by Tonbridge School and Kent County Council), and finally the Skinners' School is the lead sponsor in developing an academy to replace the Tunbridge Wells High School (with West Kent College and Kent County Council as co-sponsors).
The Mercers' involvement with academies extends back to the early CTCs, which are regarded as the precursors to the current academies model. Thomas Telford School has been an extremely successful CTC, and now co-sponsors the Walsall Academy in the West Midlands, with the Mercers'. The Company also supports two other academies, Madeley in Shropshire and Sandwell, also in the West Midlands. Even though the Government is just seeking the 'educational DNA' of livery companies and providing the #21-#35m capital costs itself, the amount of work involved for the Companies is still considerable, both for governors, heads and staff.
The academies programme is not without its critics however yet both Companies recognise a massive educational gap exists which needs to be filled. 'The contrast between the best and the less good schools in Britain is a national disgrace', remarked David Gibbs. 'It is not good enough for half the population to be educated inadequately. Every community should have an outstanding school in its midst, and every pupil the opportunity of a stimulating and appropriate education. To its credit the Government has grasped this nettle and recognises that local authorities may not be the best people to set up and run these schools, rather they can act as commissioners, enabling the longstanding successful providers of education, for example, the independent school trusts and the livery companies, to do so.'
As Michael Marchant noted, even just a new building can make a significant difference: 'If you say to youngsters from a deprived inner-city area who get the last shout at everything in life, "look, we believe in you and so we are going to spend #30 million on a brand new school so that you can have the opportunity to succeed" then - managed well - the sense of pride and self-esteem that can engender in youngsters can have a big impact. I think that with a lot of youngsters, self-esteem is under-rated as to how important it is to motivating them.'
When asked if the Skinners' would seek to be involved in more academies, David Gibbs replied: 'I hope that they would but they need to have the resources at this end to do it properly. They are keen here at the Skinners Company that whatever they do, they do it well. So if they are going to run schools, they are going to run good schools, whatever level that may be. They are not going to stretch themselves beyond being able to deliver excellence.'