Where have all the radicals gone?

The heads of our famous independent schools have accepted erosions to their freedom without a fight. Why, asks Graham Lacey, wasn't there more resistance?
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The Independent Online

The great and the good of the Head-masters' and Headmistresses' Confer- ence meet every year in September, supposedly to chart the future course of education in the independent sector. But with its charitable status apparently under threat and the tyranny of the league tables influencing, if not dictating, developments within its separate kingdom, it is no longer the feudal baron it once was. Now in truth it appears to have become an obedient subject submitting to the will of central government.

In times past headteachers certainly had more autonomy and power than their heirs of today; and some saw it as their responsibility to apply the educational principles that had attracted them to their vocation. While some may now look back on the Arnolds and Thrings as quaint establishment figures of their times, we should not forget that they were seen by many contemporaries as dangerous radicals. But where may I ask are the radicals now?

They are perhaps needed more than they have ever been. Over the past 20 or so years there has been a steady incursion by the state into areas of education that governments of a different era would have dared not tread. Civil servants sitting in Whitehall now assume they have the necessary expertise, as well as the right, to challenge the professional judgement of those at the chalk-face. Previously there had been an unwritten rule that the state should not meddle in freedoms that were best left to the experts to exercise. Now it appears to believe it has the right and duty, not only to instruct our state schools what to teach, but even how to teach it.

Perhaps nothing illustrates better the disastrous consequences of this steady erosion of schools' independence than the short history of Curriculum 2000 since the Government introduced it in 1999. It was clear to us in the boiler room that the AS-Level Titanic was heading towards the iceberg long before it actually struck it last summer. The surprise was that the captain and architect of the reforms, then chairman of the QCA, took so long to notice the direction in which the ship was heading.

Just as candidates were heading towards the examination halls, Nick Tate publicly announced that the AS exams might not be such a good thing after all. Even in the august environment of Winchester College he was able to identify the post-16 curriculum's weaknesses that had eluded him when he, as chairman, had helped launch the reforms. In short, our teenagers were being examined to death. And as if sitting as many as eight, or even more, AS papers were not enough they were being asked to take on the additional burden of at least three Key skills.

One would have hoped for resistance to these reforms from the one sector capable of exercising its independence, and blessed with the extra resources, to chart a different course. True, there was some piece-meal protest in the press from some of its members about the damage Curriculum 2000 would do to a balanced and broad-based education, that education was more than about exam certificates, that many of the best educational experiences could not be quantified like so many bottles on a wall. But aside from these mutterings, there was precious little action. Instead, the members of HMC appeared to sit and watch helplessly from the bridge as disaster struck.

To be fair, some senior members of the crew did mutiny and decided to embrace a curriculum that appeared to contain much that the Government's reforms aimed for but failed to introduce. Those few independent schools that have introduced the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to A-Levels have followed the example of schools like Sevenoaks, which has been offering the IB for 25 years. No doubt some would have been deterred by the level of investment and demand on resources such a programme would require. I suspect others, though, have preferred to embrace the devil they have started to know, and been too afraid to assert the independence their counterparts in the state sector do not have the privilege to exercise.

The HMC will reassemble this September weighed down by the practical demands of the day-to-day running of its schools. As it renews acquaintances and exchanges concerns, back at school the paper will be piling up on desks and staff will be consumed in raising the league table positions of their school. No head, I suspect, will be inclined to distance themselves from their immediate concerns as well as government educational policy, and instead begin to chart a separate and distinctive vision for the future of their schools.

The writer is director of studies at Sevenoaks School