Independent schools: 'We should promote more debate'

Nigel Richardson, the man at the helm of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, tells Karen Gold why A-levels should be made harder - and league tables scrapped
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The Independent Online

A brave government, says Nigel Richardson, newly-elected chairman of HMC, the independent schools' premier league, would not be talking about a new A* grade at A level. "A really brave government would recalibrate A-levels" he says, making it harder to get the very best grades, so that more students come out of their sixth-form years with Bs, Cs and Ds.

Work harder, do worse: you can't exactly hear the politicians' mad dash to pick up that idea. It is not HMC policy, and Richardson, 58, is not likely to propose it.

But his reasoning is thoughtful and humane. "We're in an atmosphere now where it's almost an assumption of failure at A-level if you don't get an A or B." he says. "A new A* will do nothing to improve that. It's part of a strident and unhealthy demand for a perfect world. If you recalibrated, you would take away the assumption that only perfect is good enough."

Accuse HMC of being staid and unimaginative, as Anthony Seldon, the colourful, media-savvy head newly translated to Wellington College did recently, and Richardson responds robustly. While he has seen his own school, the Perse Boys in Cambridge, where he has been head for 13 years, through controversial co-ed transition and a doubling in size (a process not completed until 2010), the independent sector as a whole has been pioneering multifarious academic and educational innovations, Richardson insists. He reels off a list that includes enriched experimental science, design technology, performing arts and ever greater commitment to social diversity.

At the same time, he admits, HMC could and should contribute more. "I think HMC could be much more effective in promoting educational debate," he says. "Independent schools educate 20 per cent of all sixth-formers. We have to be sensitive that to a large degree we represent people who can afford to pay for schooling. But we contribute a lot to the country, particularly in providing very good students in shortage subjects like science and modern languages. UK plc needs us to compete internationally. We should say so."

Part of the difficulty in saying so, he admits, is that HMC itself is far from homogenous. "We have 300 schools ranging from famous ritzy ones, to some quite modest places," he says. "Not all our members are going to be obsessed with making A-levels more difficult".

That diversity - of which he himself is unusually representative, having spread his career between prep, boarding, high-flying and obscure schools - is one reason why, a decade ago, independent schools rejected a plan to set up their own exam board.

Nevertheless many of them, including his own, are now poring over an a la carte qualifications menu that includes the International Baccalaureate, International GCSE and the still experimental Cambridge pre-U. The reason stems as much from the consequences of dissatisfaction with GCSE and A- level, he says, as from concerns about grade inflation or content reduction in the exams themselves. To sift the hordes of high-grade candidates, universities are increasingly adding one-off application hurdles - for Oxbridge, for law and medicine.

"It's becoming an enormous operation to prepare students for all these aptitude tests. Our students are on an exams treadmill for three years anyway, from GCSE to A-level, and they are becoming tested out".

Hence the benefit of trying a new system begins to outweigh even the cost of apparent underperformance in the old. "Here at the Perse we do IGCSE in science, and all pupils take three sciences. Their results aren't counted for GCSE league tables, which puts us nowhere. But I think league tables are breaking down. There was a need for them; when I taught in the Seventies it used to be considered almost vulgar for a parent to ask about results. But now there are so many, and schools can be 100 places up or down in different tables. I think parents are losing interest."

And politicians too? Suggest to Richardson that HMC has effectively seen off Labour's long-held threat to withdraw charitable status from independent schools, and he switches into well-rehearsed PR mode. "I don't see it as a victory. I think we are on probation. I think we have been given three years to prove public benefit, and we are very much on trial."

As a result the public is going to see more facilities on hire, more collaboration with state schools, and above all more bursary funds. The Perse is about to launch a £1.3m appeal, half of which is earmarked for bursaries. "Needs blind" recruitment, which means admitting pupils regardless of their financial circumstances, even if it is the goal, is a long way away, he admits. But there are people, him among them, on whom the idea does not need forcing.

"My father died when I was 16 and my youngest brother was eight. One of his accountancy clients paid our school fees. We were lucky. But I will always move heaven and earth to protect a child's continuity of education, because it was so wonderful to go back to school and to realise that life went on. When it happens here I write almost the same letter to the surviving parent that my headmaster wrote to my mother. It still brings a lump to my throat when I do it".

Visibly it does, and the conversation switches to the eight Veuve-Clicquot boxes topping his study bookshelves. They turn out to be filled with old exam papers and rugby shields, their original contents having been bought for staff Christmas presents several years ago. "Like most historians, I can't throw anything away."

History has caught up with him again lately (he read it at Cambridge before teacher training at Bristol). While teaching at Uppingham in the Seventies he researched and wrote a play about the school's cholera epidemic that ended in its evacuation to Aberystwyth for a year in 1876. As a head he went back to the story, intrigued by its human and managerial demands, to write a PhD, completed last year.

"I hadn't done any serious history for 20 years. But when I leave here I shall write a book about it, and about the head, Edward Thring, who was probably the greatest educational figure of the period after Thomas Arnold [19th- century head of Rugby School].

"Imagine what was it like to run a school where four pupils died and 50 almost died; where parents were screaming but never came to visit; where ratepayers wouldn't help and the town said everything was the school's fault. That's what I call real pressure."

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