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"You don’t raise school standards by skewing them"

Tim Hands, Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, slams Michael Gove’s plans for education reform.

As headlines go, “Public school head accuses Nick Clegg of communism” makes for a rather marvellous page lead. This was the story that broke when Dr Tim Hands, the Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, responded to Clegg’s suggestion that leading colleges should lower their A-level entry grades for state school candidates. Immediately, I wanted to talk to him.

The reason was that, to the best of my know­ledge, Hands isn’t a bombastic elitist. His father taught at a comprehensive school and Hands was educated in the state sector. His first job as a headmaster was at the Portsmouth Grammar School, a direct-grant school that began charging fees several decades ago, and which, years ago, I attended. His current school, Magdalen College, takes boys from 11-18 and girls in the sixth form. (Founded in 1480, it has been named independent school of the year twice by the Sunday Times and last year was second in the country in the Independent Schools Council league tables.)

When I visited Hands, I told him how my parents scrimped and saved to get me to PGS. We seldom went on holiday, certainly not abroad; most of the time we were encased in a fairly rigid regime of financial discipline. Across the road from us, a family whose kids went to the local comp seemed to be jetting off every other month.

I didn’t have much say in the matter, and in retrospect that was probably for the best, as it meant I got a good education. The downside came at university. Because of our abstruse class system I was alternately patronised by Etonians for being an arriviste, detested for being in the toffs’ camp by people who went to a comp, and sneered at by rich so-and-sos who went to good state schools in places like Hampstead when they wanted to talk up their working-class cred. But as a member of the middle-middle classes, I was disposed to hate most people I met for being too posh or too common, so I was fine with all that.

Before I moved to PGS, I was at a little state school down the road. It was quite rough. I remember a kid throwing a chair at the classroom window because he couldn’t do maths. But I was still about the fifth- or sixth-best in my class of 30. By chance, I know a little of what happened to three of the kids who were smarter than me. One I saw working at a mobile-phone shop. Another I saw with his solicitor outside the crown court when I was on jury service. I can’t speak for certain about the life prospects of the third, but I last saw her giving someone oral sex at a municipal swimming pool, so I can have a fair guess.

I hate this, I say. It’s totally unfair.

“It’s not right at all,” Hands says. “But some other things might not be right, either. Is attainment in tests an index for whether you’re ­prepared for life? Because if you believe in that kind of thing, then you risk being the sort of person who believes in league tables as a useful metric of schools, which they aren’t. Those friends of yours, in strategic terms, were essentially educated by politicians, while you were educated by educators. One kind of school had to deliver education filtered via politics; the other had the advantage of being able to deliver education straight.”

Tim Hands

Tim Hands. Artwork: Dan Murrell

Before I have time to digest this, he starts talking to me about his father, Rory, who left the independent sector to teach in the state system. Three of his siblings were successful and one wasn’t – because he hadn’t passed the eleven-plus exam. This, to Hands’s father, was a sign of the problems of selection. He ended up running one of the biggest comprehensives in the country.

Rory Hands became entirely dismissive of politicians who interfered with the movement even though they were the ones who had instigated it. “You know all the ironies of that,” his son says – “Thatcher closed more grammar schools than anyone else, yet used her own as the ideal. And Wilson and Callaghan sent their children to independent schools, just as Attlee and Gaitskell had done before them. And I’ve turned into my father. That’s exactly where I am. I resent political interference because all too often it doesn’t understand the needs of kids.

“Take the current situation: I simply don’t understand what Michael Gove is doing. He seems to be stuck on a Scottish moor, shooting off rockets in different directions which look brilliant in the night sky but are actually beacons of distress.”

With which reforms does he have a problem? “Gove seems to be a reversionist. Look at his recent ideas for the English curriculum in primary schools, with young kids learning Hardy poems by heart. He wants it to go back to the way it was for him. But being a clever child isn’t the best preparation for being a good teacher. You’ve got to understand what it’s like for those who can’t succeed. The idea we have to go to terminal exams is wrong. That’s not how you’ll be judged at work or at university. So, almost de facto, you should have continuous assessment in school.” He shakes his head sadly. “Idiotic.”

On 20 June, the Mail published a story, based on leaked documents, suggesting that GCSEs will be scrapped in favour of a return to O-levels and CSEs. The plan is unlikely to find favour with Hands. “No one wept when O-levels passed. In English, for example, the new GCSE was much more creative. And certainly no one wept when at the same time the divisive, unjust two-tier O-level/CSE system went. Tory doctrine has generally espoused One Nationism. It looks as if education is heading for a reverse.”

Ordinary people

Hands doesn’t give the impression of being a stern Victorian educator, nor does he seem quite the urbane, Blairite superhead who has come to predominate in the private sector. Even in middle age, he is excitable: some points are whispered as he ruffles his grey hair, others are practically shouted and accompanied with a huge belly laugh. He is part thoughtful don, part thespian projecting his voice to the back of the hall. It is clear that education is his passion.

He is even more damning of some of Gove’s other plans. “The most recent idea, of for-profit schools, is extraordinary. I gather the pressure on heads to keep costs down and maximise profit is considerable. And look at the free school campaign in London. People talk about private schools creaming off the top pupils. But if you ask about the curriculum in that kind of school, you soon see that it is going to cream off the intelligentsia and it looks as though little thought is given to the people that don’t get in. The most talked-about example of a free school is basically an old grammar school, but crucially without the secondary modern provision. Devil take the hindmost is their new educational gospel.”

Talking about “creaming off” pupils leads us back to Nick Clegg’s proposal. “Who wants to pay independent school fees? That’s the irony – many parents are just ordinary people who value education over everything else, making big sacrifices. And now they find that politicians like Clegg don’t support them.” He refers to a survey about bursary support among students at Oxford University. “We found out that a third of those who receive bursaries are from independent schools. Those kids come from schools like yours,” Hands tells me. “They can’t be at Oxford without support.”

This, he insists, is his biggest issue with the Deputy Prime Minister. “‘State’ and ‘independent’ aren’t useful terms in this context because they fail to acknowledge heterogeneity. You can have a school like King Edward’s Birmingham or Christ’s Hospital, West Sussex, which is an agent of social mobility; ie, by their foundation, they have loads of money and they can offer needs-blind access. There aren’t many of them, but they exist. But the new rhetoric is one of generic discrimination. To fail to acknowledge heterogeneity is to have the cheap rhetoric of class war – state v independent – informing the more important sphere of education and a child’s good.”

This is convincing, but you can hardly criticise the likes of the journalist Toby Young when you set up and run a private school. “For seven years as a head,” he says, “I couldn’t justify the independent sector. Then, suddenly, I could. It stood for certain things that had a meaning for young people. The value of sport, art, culture, herit­age. And, strangely, maths, about which I knew next to nothing.

“We had a partnership with a state school near the bottom of the league table . . . As part of our outreach programme, I gave our staff free periods to go and help out there.

“And actually, there’s a telling story about that school. The head began to offer those new 16-plus qualifications piloted in Telford, where if you did the exam in one subject you were also awarded three others – a sort of ‘four for the price of one’ GCSE. The school shot up the tables. The city authorities congratulated the head for the fantastic achievement. Then the next year, the government decided those exams didn’t count, the school sank, and the city council denounced it for exactly the same thing.

“The point is that you don’t raise standards by skewing them. You deceive and demoralise, you don’t help.”

Doesn’t this point take us back to his response to Clegg? “Exactly. My point was to do with markets. Grades are essentially a currency. The more complex you make the system, the more you advantage those who’ve got access to the best advice. The way to social mobility is by liberating the deserving, not repressing the high-achieving.”

So, what is the answer? Bring back the grammar schools? “They’re a double-edged sword. In the old days, grammar schools received a
different level of funding. That exacerbated the problem of selection at 11. Not only were you intellectually inadequate, you went to a less well-resourced school. That’s indefensible.”

Private affair

As I walk back in to Oxford city centre to catch the bus home, I attempt to draw some conclusions. There are writers in the left-wing press who, having attended a posh school, now feel a bit sick and want to burn the place down.

I’m pretty sure that’s not me, because I think the positive and negative effects of private schools vary wildly across areas. As Hands notes at one point during our conversation, unlike in Portsmouth, 17.5 per cent of pupils in Oxfordshire are privately educated. And, as he concedes, that must have an impact.

Would bringing those pupils into the state sector have such an impact on class attainment? If there is one thing I know, it is that the one boy who doesn’t care about learning will have a far bigger impact on the class than the five who do. And even if it did have a hugely positive effect, do I want to be the one telling young couples – as my parents were – that they should stop budgeting for education and go to Disneyland? Not really. I’d rather that if private schools were to die it was of natural causes.

The best way of taking the posturing away is through localism: encouraging a long-term partnership between the local authority and the private schools has to be key. Get that right, and maybe we won’t live in a country where a bright boy ends up working in a phone shop, or where his classmate – the one who ate all the dry pasta that was meant to go on his art project – ends up writing about him.

Alan White is the author, as John Heale, of “One Blood: Inside Britain’s Gang Culture” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)


Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr