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"Perhaps independent education isn’t such a bad thing after all"

Posted on: 12 Dec 2016
Posted by: John Claughton

Looking back on his life in education, which took him full circle to lead the school at which he was once a student, John Claughton, former Chief Master of KES Birmingham, looks at the accessibility which defined his career.

Apologia pro vita sua.


Last month I won another spurious accolade in the splendour of the Grosvenor House Hotel, the TES Lifetime Achievement Award.


It was spurious for two reasons. The first is that most of my lifetime in teaching was not much of an achievement. In 17 years at Eton College my main achievement was to move tea from 4pm to 4.30pm - si monumentum requiris, circumspice - and to annoy every other Master in charge of cricket on the circuit.


My first headship ended up with a spell of gardening leave, made the odder by the fact that the garden was part of the school playing fields.


The second reason is that the judges cited my ‘lifelong commitment to accessibility in independent education.’ This is simply not true. I may have mentioned once in 1984 that it was a shame that Eton didn’t share its playing fields with the wider world, but accessibility has only been part of my education life for two periods, from 1967 to 1975, and from 2006 to 2016.


Nearly 50 years ago accessibility to the best education mattered to me, and to my brother, because it changed my life - and his - utterly. In September 1967, wearing my brown blazer, I caught the bus in Guiseley just by the original Harry Ramsden’s, to Bradford Grammar School, proud as proud could be of my Governors’ Scholarship and free place.


A year later, the head of Bradford Grammar School had talked me into a place at King Edward’s School, Birmingham - I still have his letter to the Chief Master of the time - and there I found myself in, I’d suggest the best school in the country.


Under the Direct Grant scheme, over 80% of the boys at King Edward’s were on free places and we never even thought that other boys might pay fees. Almost all of us were the first of our family to attend university - although there were the children of Birmingham University academics there, too - and, in a good year, nearly half of us went to Oxford or Cambridge.


I don’t think that we thought very much about any inequity that our privilege might enforce upon others, but we surely knew, as we stood at the top of the drive and gazed upon Big School, that we were very lucky. And our luck continued: free university education, the best generation to be alive in human history, no wars to fight and, in my case, retirement at 60.


And then, I suppose I slept for thirty years, giving too little thought to the purpose of education. That was too easily done in the land of the lotus-eaters that is, or was, Eton College. Socrates may have said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, but it is too easy to live an unexamined life in a school where you teach bright boys Thucydides - and even Pliny - in the morning, coach rugby or cricket in the afternoons, talk to clever colleagues all day long and listen to eminent speakers week by week. Did Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney both speak at Eton in the same week, or does the passage of time deceive me? And all of this whilst living in free and sometimes splendid accommodation and, as a house master, as much free food as your family could eat.


Nor did I think very hard about accessibility in my first headship. There were other issues to address and I was too busy being useless with the minute particulars to lift up mine eyes to the hills.


And so it came to pass that I returned in 2006 to my old school and I awoke again to the significance and possibility of accessibility to such a great school. King Edward’s was founded in 1552, but it has been a great name and a great school for about as long as Birmingham has been a city, since the second half of the nineteenth century.


However, by 2006 the school was not and could not be what it was. The school’s greatness had been predicated on accessibility, on the Direct Grant or the government Assisted Places scheme. Because of that, the brightest boys of Birmingham wanted to come to King Edward’s and could come to King Edward’s. That was no longer so, despite the substantial funds invested by the King Edward’s Foundation in Assisted Places.


The reality was clear; once upon a time, and quite often, King Edward’s had been number 1 in the league tables. Now it dwelt in the shadowlands between 50 and 100. Once upon a time, and often, 40+ boys had gone to Oxford and Cambridge: in a bad year in the 21st century we were at a quarter of that.


So, we had to try to go back to the future and restore the school to the bright boys that had made it great. In its favour the school had hordes of grateful and successful - a perfect combination - of alumni who wanted to give to other boys the chance they had had for free. So, in seven years they gave us £10m for Assisted Places, and nearly £8m for other things.


And the impact of all this? Well, like Ulysses, we are not what we were, but much abides. Even if 80% of boys aren’t here for free, at least 15% are and a further 15% are on partial, and substantial, fee remission. The £10m is paying for 100 boys to be on Assisted Places. This does wonders for the school in many ways. Indeed, I’d say - and have said a lot - that it saved the school, or at least saved the soul of the school. In the raw terms of league tables, we are the best (independent) school north of Oxford.


The arrival of so many bright boys from so many different backgrounds and cultures has enriched and enlivened the school beyond words: the school is over 60% Asian with 130 boys for whom English is not their home language. All our teachers know that lessons are more fun and more interesting with such talent and such range. And the school community feels that it is doing its moral and civic purpose, offering the brightest and best boys in Birmingham a chance to succeed and to bring prosperity and mutual understanding and respect to their city.


Perhaps independent education isn’t such a bad thing after all - and perhaps the last decade of my career makes up for the shambles that preceded it.

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About John Claughton

John Claughton is former Chief Master of KES Birmingham, a boys' day school in the heart of the second city priding itself on accessibility to all boys of ability, whatever their situation.