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The Independent School in British Education

by L. H. A. Hankey - 1964

This article serves both as an explanation of recent educational developments in England and as a vigorous discussion of the issue of quality as opposed to equality in the schools.

Headmaster of The Preparatory School of Clifton College, Mr. Hankey delivered the original version of this paper last April as an address in New York to the National Association of Independent Schools. Reprinted by generous permission from the Independent School Bulletin (May, 1963, 16-20), it serves both as an explanation of recent educational developments in England and as a vigorous discussion of the issue of quality as opposed to equality in the schools.

DURING RECENT YEARS, the English literary scene has been enlivened by the writings of Frank Norman, a friendly and humorous Cockney (I like him very much) whose education was as sketchy as his early career was lurid. In his books, he delineates, vividly and trenchantly, both prison life and the postwar Soho scene. Frank would not call himself an educationist, though I believe that the purview of most schoolmasters would be healthily widened by knowledge of the man and his books. Nevertheless, in the title of his musical, which ran for two years in London, he produced a catch phrase which is as applicable to the world of English preparatory schools as to that of the tea leaves, grasses, ponces, queers, brasses, and assorted geezers of whom he writes—in short, that "Fings ain't wot they used t'be." Indeed, it is now clearly an anachronism to speak of the world of preparatory schools. At long last, English education has taken flight; we are all in orbit together: independent schools, state-maintained schools, church schools, approved schools—the lot. The burning question is, "Who, if anybody, is in control of the capsule?"


It may be worth spending a few minutes in consideration of the (I won't say good or bad) different old days, the days between the world wars. Then there was a preparatory school world; indeed, there were many preparatory school worlds, each revolving, sometimes rather slowly, in a fairly small orbit behind a protective cloud composed partly of rhododendrons, partly of public schools which, woefully short of boys, were delighted to accept such of our products as could use a knife and fork, spin a cricket ball, decline mensa, and provide reasonably affluent parents. Fortunately for the rhododendrons, there was plenty of labour for the garden; fortunately for the public schools, the majority of our products were well taught and some outstandingly able. They were certainly different days: Boys were in relatively short supply, servants relatively available. Moreover, politicians seldom found it necessary to make speeches which either alluded to us or pointedly failed to do so. We had no need to worry about political impact on our tight little educational island.

In fact, politicians themselves were different—or seemed so to us laymen. In England, Socialism still had the healthy tang of Keir Hardie's tweed, Conservatism the comforting glow of Stanley Baldwin's pipe. Today it seems to the mere schoolmaster that Conservatives worship at the shrines of Stafford Cripps and Ernest Bevin, whereas the good Socialists are Butlerites, left-wing Tories to a man. Indeed, the differences between the two parties must, to the American student of our affairs, seem as hard to assess as those between your two great parties sometimes appear to us. In England, education has, unfortunately, become a pawn in a most complicated political maneuver, that of looking right while leaning left—or vice versa. And so, a year and more ago, we had a Conservative Minister of Education making oddly inconsistent recommendations about schools to the puzzled parent, recommendations which were superficially based on high-sounding social premises but were in fact designed to make political capital—if one may use what is, in my country, rapidly becoming a dirty word. These somewhat unrealistic suggestions (I won't bore you with details of them) were, needless to say, backed by a quotation from the true prophet of Conservatism, Disraeli, the famous cliche about the Two Worlds, enunciated in his gimmicky period when he was a well known novelist and no more than an aspiring politician. The damaging thing about the proposals was the fact that they completely ignored the existence of the 500 and more schools in England which, in order to qualify for membership in the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, must have been accorded recognition as efficient by the Ministry of Education as a result of reports by Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools.


Now our business as educators is not with political pingpong but with education. We must, however, realize that there is no virtue in our independence unless it is properly applied in terms of experiment, of forethought, of tolerance, of leadership, and of setting first things first. Let us, by all means, mind our own business and make our schools as good as is possible. Let us leave politics to the politicians, economics (as far as we can) to the economists, planning (as far as we dare) to the planners. But we must avoid the disastrous mistake of cutting ourselves off from the world with which our pupils are eventually going to come face to face, the world to whose welfare we hope they may make some contribution.

I must now digress for a moment to describe briefly the set-up of British education. It resembles two staircases, side by side and each of the same total height but serving floors at different levels. The state staircase leads first from the Infants' School to the Primary School. From there, at the age of about 11, the child passes either to the Grammar School, if successful in the now notorious  11+ examination, or to the Secondary Modern School if unsuccessful. A more recent development at the secondary stage, borrowed from the United States, is the streamlined Comprehensive School, which aims to cater in the same over-all set-up to all grades of intelligence. Provision is made for movement from Secondary Modern to Grammar School if, in the succeeding two years or so, the pupil's progress gives the lie to the assessment made at the age of 11+. It is perhaps a little easier for this move to be made within the framework of the Comprehensive School The point which I want you to keep in mind is the age of transfer (at 11 years) from primary to secondary education.

The independent staircase starts with the so-called pre-preparatory school; this may be what used to be called a Dame School, run by a doubtless unqualified but often skilfull and conscientious lady teacher; or it may be a seedbed for a preparatory or other independent school. The best Dame Schools can be very good indeed; the worst are shocking. The difficulty about them is that they often depend so much on the reputation, personality, and teaching ability of their Principals; if a school of this type cashes in on its good name and becomes rather larger, the problem of assistant teachers will arise. All over England (and on both of my staircases), there is a shortage of good, and especially of qualified, teachers of younger children. By and large, it is the current view that too many pre-preparatory schools are not giving the same solid grounding as was the case in former years; this may be owing to the fact that the standard of academic achievement is on the rise in all independent schools and that the pre-preparatory schools have found it hard to adjust themselves. In so far as this is true, it may also be attributed partly to the undue dissipation of good teaching because of increasing numbers of pupils, partly to the inflow, from the less good maintained primary schools and from so-called progressive schools, of play-way methods. Whatever the impact of these latter on a child's immortal soul (and I reckon this a dubious quantity), their stimulus to mental development seems negligible. Between the ages of seven and nine, the boy (for purposes of this summary I am ignoring girls, though their staircase is not dissimilar)—the boy reaches the first landing and starts to climb his second staircase, that of the independent preparatory school. The best of these are magnificent, the worst appalling. Here I must repeat that all IAPS schools, though they may vary in quality, must have satisfied Her Majesty's Inspectors that they are efficient. The next landing is reached usually during a boy's fourteenth year, when he starts at his public school or, if he cannot achieve the necessary standard in the Common Entrance Examination, to an independent senior school not in membership with the Headmasters' Conference, the corps elite of British independent secondary schools.


My description of these two staircases is no more than an outline, but it does, I hope, provide a background for one or two observations.

The first of these is the difference in the age of transfer from primary to secondary education. That of n is, so the argument goes, forced on the maintained schools by the fact that the minimum age for leaving school is 15; there must be at least four years of secondary education for all. Nevertheless the view that 13 is a better age of transfer seems to be more and more widely held. If there is to be a rapprochement between the independent and maintained systems —and I hold most strongly that there should be—it must, I am sure, be on the basis that the maintained schools should move towards a later age of transfer.

My next point is that a boy in an independent preparatory school may take the state's examination at 11+. Many do, partly because the parents wish to make this insurance against the possibility that at some later stage they may be unable to continue payment of ever increasing fees. Some IAPS schools enter all boys of the appropriate age for this examination. Despite the fact that the present preparatory school curriculum differs widely from that of the maintained primary school, since the boy's education is geared to qualification for a public school at 13+ rather than for a grammar school at 11+, the proportion of successful candidates is considerably higher than the national average. This should indeed be so, since the number of boys from a good educational and cultural background is larger and—a most Important factor—the classes are much smaller. Recent research has, however, brought to light facts which will, I believe, lead to something still more significant. Of boys who spend the normal span at an IAPS preparatory school, fail in the 11+ examination, and then qualify for a public or independent senior school (as very many do), the great majority achieve the standards expected of a successful 11+ candidate in subsequent examinations—that is to say, the General Certificate of Education at both the ordinary and in some cases advanced levels. These statistics indicate that the good independent preparatory school is not merely, as is sometimes suggested, a hot-house for Winchester and Rugby scholars, providing an atmosphere in which the weaker plants, less carefully tended, do not flourish as they should. On the contrary, they can be shown to provide for the less able boy an academic discipline which of itself disproves the efficacy of the 11+ examination in separating the intellectual sheep from the more bucolic goats, a discipline which provides for the slower pupil a sound basis on which the public school can effectively build. If this is so, the independent schools may certainly lay claim to a vital stake in British education, for it is a fundamental precept that the best in education should not be reserved only for the most able children. It is surely a source of justifiable pride if we can produce first-grade bricks from second-grade straw.


These figures, and the conclusion to which they lead, seem to me to give the lie to a suggestion, made by this same Minister of Education and echoed since by other speakers, that all children should, up to a certain age (in this case 11), go to the same kind of school—obviously a maintained primary school. I grow very tired of this suggestion, which seems to me founded on a wholly bogus inverted snobbery. It is surely a parent's responsibility to secure for his children the best education that he can. If he can afford to buy it, let him do so, as long as he really believes it to be the best education available. If, on the other hand, he reckons that his child can learn more from books, teachers, and fellow pupils in a maintained primary school, then let him save his money and allow his children to take advantage of the characteristic merits of such schools. But let him choose carefully; let him not forget that the small classes of independent preparatory schools are a source of formidable strength; let him bear in mind that the independent schools can, if a boy is permitted to take the full course, enable him to achieve much. And whatever the parent decides, let him remember that quality is more important than equality. When a man wants to make a lawn level, he rolls it down. "Equality of opportunity" is a fine ideal; it can also become a catchpenny platform cry, which rolls all too easily off the demagogue's tongue. If ever, in order to achieve equality, the quality of education is impaired, the brave new world for which we all hope will become more and more remote. It must be the pride and the responsibility of independent schools to stand for and insist on standards of high quality—and to examine themselves most closely and with a fierce self-criticism to ensure their maintenance.

One of the less happy aspects of the educational scene in Great Britain has been the great gulf fixed between the maintained and independent systems. The independent schools must take their share of the blame for this. The concept of the old school tie and all that it implies—in itself no bad thing—was allowed to become a shibboleth; an almost prescriptive right to places at Oxford and Cambridge for boys from public schools seemed a natural assumption; the preparatory schools, bogged down in a grotesque perversion of the classical tradition, chose to ignore the many interesting developments that were taking place in schools less cut to measure. There were also faults on the other side; accusations of snobbery sometimes arose from petty jealousy, and the cry of "privilege" was raised by those who did not stop to consider whether a privilege might not have been justly earned. It is true that the work of the Fleming Committee in the '40s seemed an attempt to bridge the gap. That the offer of places in public schools for boys from maintained schools was genuine, not merely a means of insurance against a possible fall in numbers, has been proved to the hilt by the constant reiteration of both the Headmasters' Conference and the Governing Bodies' Association that they remain willing to consider any such scheme. But the first practical steps towards a liaison which was something more than a mere transference of pupils came from the preparatory schools. It was set out in principle in the preface to Foundations.1 For a time, little of practical importance happened. Foundations was acclaimed more warmly and more widely than its compilers had dared to hope, but nothing substantial was done to implement it. Those of us who believe, however, that there should be cooperation between the two systems have recently found support in unexpected quarters, and things are beginning to move.


There is, after all, a very strong case for some pooling of ideas, some increased understanding of the aims, methods, and problems of schools of other types. It is surely healthy that the teacher in an independent school, proud—too proud perhaps—of working a 14-hour day in a 7-day week, should learn just why the teacher in a really tough secondary modern school needs to go home at 5:30 each day and to refresh his mind over the weekend. Nor can it be anything but good that the teacher in that same tough secondary modern school should see how, in a good independent boarding school, there can be an easy, happy camaraderie between master and boy of which neither would want to take advantage. These lessons were in fact learnt as a result of a three-day exchange of two masters between my school and a maintained school in a slum area in Bristol. It was part of an understanding between the two schools from which each has, I believe, gained much. Again my own school (and if I speak mainly of it, please realize that it is because I find it easier to do so, not because it is unique in this respect) started Rugby football matches against a local comprehensive school. We lost the first game 57-0, a chastening experience for boys who have greater opportunities for coaching and better fields; the return match was a draw. The fixture is now a permanent one, and whatever the results of the matches, the realization by the members of two apparently" very different schools that classrooms, masters, and—above all—schoolboys are the same, no matter how marked the superficial differences, has broken down a purely artificial barrier which in my view need never have existed. I hope these small examples have given the idea of the much greater understanding and cooperation which I believe could ensue. The essential thing seems to me that the independent schools should take, and in fact (on a limited front) have taken, the initiative. At long last the local Education Authorities, the National Union of Teachers, headmasters in both systems, and even the Ministry of Education itself are concerned with the process. The next year or so may show some practical achievements on a wider scale.

Meanwhile IAPS has in being a committee whose aim it is to produce a syllabus for boys between 8+ and 10+ which will, it is hoped, be better than the present one or than that of the maintained primary schools. This is a positive attempt to implement Foundations. And none of this need involve the selling of any educational passes. The independent schools are strongly placed; they can afford to lead from strength and show, without abandoning any of those standards or principles to which they must always adhere, that they accept the responsibility of contributing to the general good of the country's education.


There is one aspect of independent education which causes me deep concern. As a result of the enormous pressure for entry to universities (we still have not nearly enough places for those who want them), there has been a pretty rapid raising of academic standards, dictated from the top but inevitably spreading down the age groups. Examinations loom larger and larger in a boy's life; he is aware, too early and too often, that his whole future career may depend on a three-day test. Hard work does no boy any harm, and I have no use for a school which fails to demand it from every one of its members. But the pressure is becoming too great, the strain too protracted. Above all, we are in danger of forgetting, in our frenzied pursuit of academic achievement, the two prime virtues of an independent school, the twin pillars which support it. The first of these is happiness. No school can fulfill its purpose unless both boys and masters are in the best sense happy; undue tensions, worry, or dismay can taint its very essence, rot the foundations of its proper security. Of the other I find it less easy to speak; I believe, however, that it is the most important factor of all those which go to make the best of schools. No matter what the religion, I am sure it is the spiritual life of an independent school which matters most. It should be a blazing, vital fact that our schools are in the fullest sense religious foundations. By this I do not mean that they should engender a mawkish pseudo-churchy sentimentality or be a breeding ground for prigs. If we are doing our job properly, we are striving to give boys a faith which will enable them to bring courage, honesty, and sincerity to a world whose moral and spiritual torpor ought to be, but isn't, the concern of every man and woman who holds any position of responsibility. Every boy who goes out from his school, bearing about with him the infection of a good courage, can be a diffuser of life, can do something to assuage the agonies of a tortured world.

In all these ways, all of us deeply concerned with education, professing the same ideals, must try constantly to lead. And it is not possible to lead unless we know where we are going, unless we watch the rest of the traffic, unless we know which corners to turn and when to turn them, unless we keep our eyes on the road. Wide open eyes and no blinkers; wide open above all wide open horizons, blocked by minds and no prejudices; no high, artificial hedges of our own creation.

Let us look, and think, and lead.

1 A report on the curriculum for ages 8-13 of British preparatory schools, published in 1959.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 65 Number 5, 1964, p. 423-429
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 2660, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:15:43 AM

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