To serve them by deserts

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
The radical head of a top London public school looks forward to awarding places by merit, not fee-paying power. Cherry Canovan reports.

GRAHAM Able is a man with a vision. His dream is that the school he heads, the rather grand Dulwich College, in south London, should have the funds to admit any child who deserves a place, regardless of whether they can afford the pound;3,110-a-term fees.

This bold ambition, which he refers to as the school's "nirvana" - is a pointer to the character of a man who colleagues describe as a forthright, plain speaker who is not afraid to tackle difficult issues, and "very committed" to widening access.

One person who has known him for years said: "In some ways he is a radical - certainly for the independent sector."

Mr Able is bent on tackling what some might see as a very thorny issue: cutting the private sector's scholarships to children from wealthy families. But this is not the only ambition he admits to for his year as chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

He wants to see closer links with other associations, not just those in the private sector. HMC is working with the Secondary Heads' Association, and Mr Able wants to continue that trend. "A lot of things can be tackled with a common view," he says.

Another priority is building international links. Dulwich College is a keen proponent of such connections, boasting a franchise school in Southern Thailand.

He sees the main issue facing the sector as the 14-19 curriculum - or, as Mr Able believes it should be, the 13-19 curriculum.

"If we are going to get both breadth and depth for those who follow the academic route to 18, we need three years of advanced studies," he says. "To do that, we need to move the key stage 4 curriculum back." He has also lobbied for post-qualification application to university, for 10 years or more.

HMC will continue to debate the possible shape of a new curriculum, but Mr Able is adamant that the sector is not considering going it alone. Instead, some sort of over-arching award or certificate to include AS and A2 qualifications could be piloted, "but it would be seen as something that would be taken up nationally - it would not be an attempt to set our own qualifications".

But it will be his most pressing concern, access, which prompts the most heated debates among HMC members this year. Watch out for fireworks.


Graham Able was born in Great Walsingham, Norfolk, in 1947.

He was educated at Worksop College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences and did a PGCE. He got an MA for research into boarding education, at the University of Durham.

He taught chemistry at Sutton Valence school for 14 years and became a housemaster in 1976. He was appointedsecond master at Barnard Castle in 1983.

He became head of Hampton School in 1988 and Master at Dulwich College in 1997.

He is married with a son and daughter.

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