Heads on a roll

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Vivian Anthony has transformed the HMC from a pleasant club into a robust defender of the independent sector. Biddy Passmore reports.

VIVIAN Anthony, brisk and genial in his navy blazer and neat grey flannels, does not look like a man who has just retired after 10 years as general secretary of a trade union.

Yet so he was, as secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the association of the country's 240 leading boys' and co-ed independent schools. It is the only professional association in the independent sector with that status.

Next week, he will give the keynote address to the brothers (and a few sisters) at the HMC's annual meeting in Harrogate.

Mr Anthony has the slightly old-fashioned air of a man who once walked into McDonald's and demanded tea and a teacake. (He eventually settled for a toasted burger bun.) But he is widely credited with changing the HMC from a very pleasant gentlemen's club to a highly professional heads' association.

A clear sign of that change is the number of courses it now runs for heads and aspiring heads: 37, says Mr Anthony, quite an increase on the two when he started in 1990. Running the courses is now his notionally part-time job.

The HMC was first convened 130 years ago by the headmaster of Uppingham School to formulate a coherent response by public school heads to the threat of government legislation - 1870 and all that. It has been responding to government threats and proposals ever since. The secretary's job, says Mr Anthony, is "getting to know people in positions of power".

"He was brilliant at raising the profile of the HMC," says Tony Evans, head of King's College School, Wimbledon and a former chairman of the HMC's academic policy committee. "His loyalty and comprehensive knowledge of education policy were of huge value - he's acronymically batty."

In his 10 years as secretary, Mr Anthony had constant access to senior civil servants and, under the Tories, easy access to ministers as well. Now, ministers are harder to reach. But he concedes that life under Labour has in general been much better than expected for independent schools, while warning that things might not be so rosy in a second term. "Independent schools are a very easy target to keep the left-wing happy."

Keeping the left-wing happy led to the ending of the Assisted Places Scheme when Labour came to power - a loss that Mr Anthony describes as "one of my failures" (another is the relentless decline in boarding).

He wants to see it replaced by a scheme modelled on one in Australia, iving parents the amount it would cost to educate their child in the state sector to spend at an independent school.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of his past decade has been the failure to bring about major reform of the exam system. The thousands of hours of work on 16 to 19 reform have resulted in "pretty small beer". The new AS and A-level diet is still not broad enough, he says. He also wants to see GCSE downgraded so that it can "wither on the vine".

The son of a captain in the merchant navy, Vivian Anthony went from Cardiff high to study economics at the London School of Economics and take a Dip Ed at Cambridge. He had a meteoric early career, becoming a housemaster at Tonbridge School by the age of 29. Then came marriage to Ros, teacher of history of art at a nearby girls' private school (they now have two grown-up children).

He spent two years at Leeds University's department of education, teaching economics and education and wrote a couple of books (on economics and objective testing) but soon concluded there was "not enough adrenalin. I wanted something to get my teeth into".

So he started applying for deputy headships and got the first one he applied for - at the King's School, Macclesfield.

His new head, Alan Cooper, did little to make his new deputy an instant hit. "I just want you to know he's my man and not yours," he told his startled staffroom.

In 1976, Mr Anthony became head of Colfe's, a voluntary grammar in south-east London that had just opted to go independent. He built it up energetically and stayed there until 1990, becoming during that period a chief examiner in economics, a member of HMC (1980) and chairman of its academic policy committee (1988-90). When HMC was looking for a new secretary strong on academic policy, he was the obvious candidate.

Now 62, he made way in April for his successor Geoff Lucas, a senior official from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and is now the HMC's training officer. This is nominally a part-time job but he's working more than five days a week from the converted stables at his house on the LeicestershireRutland border. (He moved there when he took up the HMC post in Leicester.)

When he's got all those 37 courses sorted out, he hopes to find time for inspecting, appraisal and "a bit of writing".

A serious choral singer, he chairs the chamber choir in Leicester. He supports the Leicester Tigers, "the best rugby team in the country" and he keeps Saturday mornings free for tennis. As he says: "I'm someone who likes to keep busy."

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