Reg Little meets the master of Magdalen College School, soon to be the voice of the world’s independent schools
The master of Magdalen College School, Dr Tim Hands, is looking forward to the academic year ahead. when he will effectively become the voice of independent school heads in the UK.
Prime Minister David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the other public school boys in the Cabinet will not be anticipating his election as chairman of The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference with the same relish.
An article in the New Statesman headlined ‘Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, slams Michael Gove’s plans for education reform’ last year gave notice of what lay ahead.
Then there was the master’s intervention in the row over reports that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had considered sending his eldest son to a private school.
“If you’re to believe the papers, Mr Clegg has not even been to look at his local state school,” thundered Dr Hands writing in a national newspaper.
“He believes that where he sends his son is a matter for him. One might think that the kind of school others could send their children to would be a matter for him, too. But for the Deputy Prime Minister, that’s an entirely separate issue. It’s one rule for him and one rule for everyone else — which seems to me neither liberal, nor democratic.”
Soon after its publication a phone call from Mr Clegg’s office was quickly forthcoming.
Yes, I had a response from Mr Clegg’s office,” chuckled Dr Hands. “You could say it was an invitation to continue the debate.”
It is not that Dr Hands has it in for politicians — more a question that he simply thinks they should stick to politics and leave education to those who best understand it.
He speaks almost every day to one person who knows a great deal about schools, his 94-year-old father, who left teaching in the independent sector out of a sense of vocation and educational injustice, and ended up running one of the biggest comprehensives in the country.
His father’s older brother, who had died in the Second World War, was to feel a failure all his life because he hadn’t passed the 11 plus. His mother won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1937.
“I am from a family of teachers,” the master tells me. One ancestor was a schoolmaster on HMS Victory, and coffee in his study isserved on mats bearing an image of Horatio Nelson.
Dr Hands has strong views about what the Government is doing to both the state and independent sectors, as well as the relationship between public and state schools.
He still vividly recalls sitting a scholarship paper for Latymer Upper School, a selective school in Hammersmith.
“I remember the building, I remember the papers. I remember my helplessness not just in the maths paper, but also in English, supposedly my strong suit. The invigilating teacher smoked, and there was spam for lunch. I knew I would fail, and fail I conclusively did.”
He was to end up going to Emanuel, a grammar school in south-west London. After reading English at King’s College, London, he arrived in Oxford to research 19th century literature and ended up lecturing at Oriel College.
In 1986 he began teaching at King’s School, Canterbury, before becoming headmaster in 1997 at the Portsmouth Grammar School, one of the country’s leading co-educational schools.
Eleven years later Dr Hands, a father-of-two whose wife Jane, a solicitor, read classics at Oxford, returned to become master of MCS.
When in September he takes over as chairman of the HMC he will become the first MCS master to be elected to that position in 100 years.
The association represents 253 independent schools in the UK and Ireland and another 63 acround the world.
“People tend to think of the HMC as a collection of toffs. It is not,” he said.
For him education should be the great facilitator of social mobility, a subject that seems to obsess the Government. And when it comes to social mobility it is independent schools, not state schools or grammar schools, that provide the best option, in his view. Yet they now find themselves “politically cold shouldered” for their efforts, he insists.
The HMC will provide him with a platform and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is already in his sights.
“We all know that massive differences exist between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. We have a coalition of people who are ideological opposites in higher education matters.”
Nevertheless, he argues, political interference continues apace and the politicisation of education has cast its shadow over the curriculum, the examination system and university admissions.
“Governments, going right back to Thatcher, only seem to have an interest in the academic side. For me the most important part of any child’s education is pastoral care. Extra-curriculum activities like sport and music are important in developing self-esteem, allowing children to be more successful.”
With Tony Blair, out went assisted places, leaving in his view, an independent sector and state sector with nothing in between. “New Labour replaced selection by ability with selection by wallet,” he says.
Now we have Michael Gove, moving at breakneck speed and in the wrong direction, he argues, something Mr Gove himself acknowledged by his change of heart on the new English Baccalaureate (Ebac) qualification.
“The pace of change has been too quick. Take for example my own subject, English. I am a great believer in the place of oral English. We spend most of our lives communicating orally and a lot of people find it difficult. But it is being phased out because it is difficult to mark.
“Last summer saw a particularly absurd lack of joined-up thinking. On the one hand David Willetts (the Universities and Science Minister) told universities they could plan and budget to admit more students with top grades. On the other hand Michael Gove reduced the number of top grades thus reducing the number of ‘top’ students available. It caused heartache in many homes, and financial problems for many a university budget.”
The Government push to create academies is, Dr Hands believes, partly driven by the longstanding desire to make state schools appear more like independent schools.
He said: “Anything that made education better for young people is, of course, to be welcomed, and an increasing number of independent schools are involved in academy projects.”
But the much trumpeted freedoms of academies were, in the experience of many heads, something of an illusion.
“The more politicians interfere in state education, the more they deny schools real independence.”
He does not take on the prestigious HMC chairmanship for four months, but says: “I am working on a number of new themes.”
The debate with Mr Clegg and his colleagues would seem to be far from over.