William Richardson: 'Universities have a lot to learn from private schools'

As the new spokesman for Britain's elite schools takes up his post, he offers his predictions for the future to Richard Garner

For the second time in his career, William Richardson is stepping into a job that presents him with a hard act to follow. Professor Richardson is currently head of the School of Education at Exeter University – a post previously held by the legendary Ted Wragg, whose caustic comments about those in authority lightened the lives of thousands of teachers who read his weekly newspaper column.

Later this year he is to become secretary to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference – the body which represents the traditionally boys-only schools such as Eton and Harrow. His predecessor there is Geoff Lucas, who will be stepping down after 11 years of service during which he made sure it was at the centre of education debate in the country.

Professor Richardson is not daunted by his move. "I seem to take jobs where a standard has been set – and make sure I keep it up or improve on it a little," he says. One thing is sure. He will be in the limelight as he takes on his new role at the beginning of what – certainly in the world higher education – will be a seismic shift in the method of delivery.

He believes the changes will see universities adopting a similar approach to the way they are run to that adopted by independent schools over the years. Most obviously, they will have to rely on fee income from students in future – in the same way as independent schools rely on fee income from parents. "Universities are going to feel very, very different and more like independent schools in the way they run," he says. "They are going to charge different fees. They are going to feel more like consumer-led institutions. "It's a real sea change. They are going to be facing their biggest challenge since the Second World War."

Like the leading boarding schools, he believes an elite of the 30 universities will have no problems in attracting students under the fees regime. Other universities will be operating like independent day schools in inner city areas – attracting students who can live at home while they study.

Some parents currently sending their children to independent schools might think twice about their sons' and daughters' destinations. They could well live at home while they study – thus saving money. "The economics of all this means people will start to look at just what it means to go away to university," he says. "We will see the end of what you might call the fiction that all universities are identical in their offering to students. Those with the international reputation will still have international recruitment." They will also retain their research base – although research will be more concentrated amongst this group.

"The interesting thing will be what happens to the middle-ranking universities and where they will pitch themselves when it comes to charging fees," he suggests. "All the consequences will be known in the next three to five years." Professor Richardson believes the reforms to universities are so far-reaching that it will be impossible for any new government to unpick them.

He is confident of the independent sector's ability to ride the changes. Research carried out by him for the HMC 18 months ago showed that – in the subjects defined as strategic but vulnerable subjects (maths, science, engineering and languages) which will keep some state funding for teaching – universities were more heavily dependent upon the independent sector for their supply of students. That, he believes is unlikely to change.

The other big area of change will stem from the Government's reviews of the curriculum and qualifications system. The past few years has seen a growth in the diversity of the exams offered to pupils in the independent sector. Many schools have turned to the International GCSE – moulded along the lines of traditional O-levels with more weight focused on the end-of-term exam. A smaller number have deserted the A-level in some subjects, opting instead for the new Cambridge Pre-U exam – which again eschews coursework in favour of an end-loaded exam. In addition, growing numbers of schools have taken the International Baccalaureate on board because of the breadth of subjects it encompasses.

Professor Richardson is quick to point out, though, that very few schools have deserted the A-level in their entirety – moving to alternatives in just a few subject areas. Canvassing of individual headteachers reveals strong support for the A-level still exists. "The vast majority of students admitted to university are admitted on the basis of their projected A-level results," he says.

He points out that research for the HMC by academics Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson of London University's Institute of Education had shown that "despite press reports, there was no major appetite for a move away fundamentally from A-levels. You would not abandon them or move away from them without a great deal of thought," he said. "They didn't see an appetite for that." In addition, changes to A-levels have addressed some of the concerns that prompted a few schools to switch.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is also planning a further review, which will see a curb on pupils being allowed to resit their exams. Here, Professor Richardson perceives there may be a conflict of interests between some of the pure educationalists and parents and pupils. "Parents quite like the idea of their child being able to resit the exam and improve upon their results," he says. "It will be interesting. There are significant pressures from pupils and parents to resit modules. That's a tricky one for school leaders. There is a very strong educational argument against excessive modularisation."

His acceptance of his new job coincided with the resurrection of the debate over whether the education system should move to a situation where pupils applied for university places after they have taken their A-levels – rather than being awarded places on projected grades. The latest person to espouse this idea is Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS). "I suppose it would be more transparent," Professor Richardson says. "The clearing system would presumably wither away."

However, he notes there was significant opposition from the vice-chancellors of the UK's research-led universities. "They don't want the administrative burden that would entail in July and August, when they are at their busiest time," he says. The debate over a switch has been raging for decades with resolution, he points out, with no solution in sight.

Professor Richardson is aware of the traditions of his new job. He himself is a former pupil of an HMC school, Highgate in north London. "The invitation to become general secretary of the HMC, one of the world's oldest and most-prominent independent school associations, is a great honour," he says. "There are many pressing and complex questions currently facing UK education and leading independent schools are a significant voice in these debates."

Professor Richardson is no stranger to HMC – he has been advising it on university admissions and teaching issues in higher education for the past couple of years. During his five-year spell as the head of Exeter's School of Education, it retained a position of being in the top 10 for its subject area in the university league tables every year.

If he brings the same expertise to his new job as he has done to his present job, it could, therefore, be the case that people will be talking of him being a hard act to follow in years to come.

HOW THE HMC WAS BORN

The HMC is better known by its initials than its real title, Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

HMC was founded in 1869 (when it was just the Headmasters' Conference) when the then-headmaster of Uppingham School invited 60 to 70 of his fellow headmasters to meet at his houses to consider the formation of a "school society and annual conference". Just 14 accepted the invitation and only 12 stayed for the entire meeting. Very few members miss the annual conference today.

Historically, HMC was meant for boys' schools only – 243 are in membership. Its members are almost the epitome of what is meant by a public school.

It changed its name to include headmistresses in 1996, in recognition of the fact that women were being appointed to head some of its schools – which coincided with the fact that more and more of them were admitting girls.

There has still not been any rapprochement with the Girls' School Association – which represents schools such as Cheltenham Ladies' College, Wycombe Abbey, Roedean and Benenden.

The HMC has international members in such far-flung parts as El Salvador, New Zealand and Malaysia.

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