Final thoughts on money, mobility and moving on

26th August 2011 at 01:00
Geoff Lucas, outgoing chief of elite heads' group HMC, tells David Rogers why parental cashflow and politicians' laser focus on social mobility will be the next big issues for independent schools

It may surprise some, but Geoff Lucas thinks his grounding as a teacher in the state sector helped him get the job of secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), the organisation that represents the top 250 independent schools, including the likes of Eton and Harrow.

Educated at a grammar school, Mr Lucas spent six years as an English and Spanish teacher at George Dixon School, a comprehensive in Birmingham, before spending the next decade working as a lecturer in higher education at Trinity and All Saints College in Leeds.

"I think (the appointment to the HMC) was partly to make a statement that they weren't insular," he says. "They also wanted somebody to do a stint."

He retires at the end of this month, when he turns 60, and his life in education - which, after his teaching career, involved a further 10 years at government bodies specialising in the curriculum and public exams before he took the HMC job in September 2000 - will be finished.

He is not planning to linger and admits he is now becoming preoccupied with thoughts of brushing up on his cooking skills, more walking, overseas travel, and dusting off his golf clubs.

"I used to be quite good when I was younger, but then I went to university," he says ruefully. Don't expect a long semi-retirement on a number of boards or quangos, then.

One thing that has certainly changed in the 10 years since Mr Lucas joined the HMC is that there is a great deal of pressure on public schools to work with their maintained counterparts, and vice versa.

A few years ago, Lord Adonis, once education adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair and a schools minister, suggested that state schools should adopt the "educational DNA" of independents.

It was at the HMC's high-profile annual conference in 2007 that the founding father of the academies programme said the state sector needed the help of the independent sector to improve. The support of private schools, Lord Adonis said, would give all children access to an excellent education, not just those who could pay expensive fees.

What about the other way round? After his time on both sides of the educational divide, does Mr Lucas think independents can learn anything from state schools? Pause. "I'm sure there is. It depends on the individual school. The community links they have are important."

He is on firmer ground when asked what state schools can learn from independents. "They can learn from the pastoral side, the all-round care for children. How to motivate kids and keep that up."

He says independents are pushed into maintaining standards because of who keeps them in business. "It's the power of accountability of parents paying fees. Parents are our clients."

He thinks what Lord Adonis said had some impact with the Labour government's academies programme and applauds him for putting "pragmatism over ideology". He even admits that heads in his organisation were impressed with what was being built. "Certainly, there wouldn't have been a head who wasn't impressed by new-build academies. They were high-tech."

So, while one element of New Labour's raft of education reform left a positive impression on him, he sees others as less favourable.

Mr Lucas says ministers missed a trick to put pressure on independents because of their opposition - misguided, he thinks - to selection. "It's simple, if Labour had really wanted to put pressure on independents it would have dropped its ideological opposition to selection and put a grammar school in every town. It would have put huge pressure on independents."

However, there are other, Government-inspired pressures that independent schools will face in the years to come, not least a growing concern with social mobility in universities.

He says this is one of the greatest issues facing his successor William Richardson, the outgoing head of the school of education at Exeter University: how these same "hang-ups" could impact on the number of pupils that universities will end up admitting from independents.

"I've noticed the political tensions between the instinct of the Tories - to leave alone - and the Lib Dems with their social mobility thing," says Mr Lucas. "I think it's a real threat to the autonomy of the universities. There is a danger of putting social mobility in at any cost and I think some vice-chancellors are buying into the Lib Dems' view."

He admits he has not seen much in the way of cast-iron evidence of bias, but that he and the HMC have "an undercurrent of concern" with a proposal that could see pupils from independents passed over for university places in favour of those from state schools.

"To discriminate is wrong. We are interested in social mobility but not at the expense of downgrading standards."

He says some in the independent sector are worried by what the reaction of parents might be if their children are denied access to a university of their choice because they go to a fee-paying school. "Given the high proportion of students from our sector who go into higher education, admissions are a high-stakes part of the enterprise," he says.

There is something ironic in the possibility of universities striking out privately educated children from the admissions process, given the parallels Mr Lucas draws between them.

"Universities are more and more like independent schools. Both are selective, both charge fees and both make important contributions to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects."

But there can be no doubt that what really keeps Mr Lucas awake at night is not that different from the rest of us - the financial storm around the world. On the day we meet, share markets plunged as concerns grew that a Greek-style sovereign debt crisis was going to spread internationally.

"In the future, the challenges will be educational and economic. How far will Middle England continue to be squeezed?" he says.

Despite this, independents have done remarkably well since the recession, and disabused any early fears that plenty of them could go to the wall as parents were thrown out of their high-paying jobs in the City.

But Mr Lucas admits fee-paying schools are not recession-proof - smaller girls' schools and prep schools are particularly at risk, he adds.

This begs the question that many in the independent sector are asking themselves: is there any end to fees inflation? In 2010, the average overall fee increase was up 4 per cent, its smallest annual rise since 1994 - the tail end of the last recession. This one has been deeper and longer, but a year later fees were up on average by 4.5 per cent with, according to figures from the Independent Schools Council, average term fees at day schools amounting to #163;3,655, while average termly boarding fees now stand at #163;8,384.

Clearly, this kind of fee is something only the very rich can afford and Mr Lucas is setting his sights on the sort of fees that "first-time buyers", as he calls those parents who have never been educated at an independent but are thinking of sending their children to one, can afford.

He says he doesn't know when fees will hit a ceiling they can never go beyond or what that ceiling will actually be, but that parents shouldn't automatically rely on bursaries to help send their children to fee-paying schools.

This is an interestingly political point given that HMC has been locked in a long war with the Charities Commission over what constitutes charitable work in the schools sector. The key battleground has been how many free or subsidised places schools should offer if they want to keep charitable status.

"The only problem with bursaries is that not all schools are sufficiently well endowed to sustain a bursary programme," he says in a circumspect manner.

What, instead, will ensure independents continue to flourish in any political or economic climate is, Mr Lucas says, the quality of education they provide.

"But the benchmark of independents is to be excellent. The minimum standard has to be very good. They won't survive if they can't do that."

Geoff Lucas - CV


1962-69: Northgate Grammar School for Boys, Ipswich

1969-73: Birmingham University: BA Spanish and English

1973-74: Trinity and All Saints College of Higher Education, Leeds: PGCE

1982-84: Leeds University: masters in education


1974-80: George Dixon School, Birmingham: head of Spanish, assistant teacher of Spanish and English

1980-89: Trinity and All Saints College of Higher Education, Leeds: director of PGCE secondary course, lecturer in Spanish

1989-93: National Curriculum Council: professional officer

1993-97: School Curriculum and Assessment Authority: assistant chief executive

1997-2000: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority: director of special projects, head of corporate policy

2000-11: Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference: general secretary.

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