Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"Gone Is Stuck on a Scottish Moor, Firing off Rockets": Tim Hands, the Master of Magdalen College School, Wants Politicians to Stop Interfering in the Classroom

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"Gone Is Stuck on a Scottish Moor, Firing off Rockets": Tim Hands, the Master of Magdalen College School, Wants Politicians to Stop Interfering in the Classroom

Article excerpt

As headlines go, "Public school head accuses Nick Clegg of communism" makes for a rather marvellous page lead. This was the story that broke when Dr Tim Hands, the Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, responded to Clegg's suggestion that leading colleges should lower their A-level entry grades for state school candidates. Immediately, I wanted to talk to him.

The reason was that, to the best of my knowledge, Hands isn't a bombastic elitist His father taught at a comprehensive school and Hands was educated in the state sector. His first job as a headmaster was at the Portsmouth Grammar School, a direct-grant school that began charging fees several decades ago, and which, years ago, I attended. His current school, Magdalen College, takes boys from 11-18 and girls in the sixth form. (Founded in 1480, it has been named independent school of the year twice by the Sunday Times and last year was second in the country in the Independent Schools Councilleague tables.)

When I visited Hands, I told him how my parents scrimped and saved to get me to PGS. We seldom went on holiday, certainly not abroad; most of the time we were encased in a fairly rigid regime of financial discipline. Across the road from us, a family whose kids went to the local comp seemed to be jetting off every other month.


I didn't have much say in the matter, and in retrospect that was probably for the best, as it meant I got a good education. The downside came at university. Because of our abstruse class system I was alternately patronised by Etonians for being an arriviste, detested for being in the toffs' camp by people who went to a comp, and sneered at by rich so-and-sos who went to good state schools in places like Hampstead when they wanted to talk up their working-class cred. But as a member of the middle-middle classes, I was disposed to hate most people I met for being too posh or too common, so I was fine with all that.

Before I moved to PGS, I was at a little state school down the road. It was quite rough. I remember a kid throwing a chair at the classroom window because he couldn't do maths. But I was still about the fifth-or sixth-best in my class of 3o. By chance, I know a little of what happened to three of the kids who were smarter than me. One I saw working at a mobile-phone shop. Another I saw with his solicitor outside the crown court when I was on jury service. I can't speak for certain about the life prospects of the third, but I last saw her giving someone oral sex at a municipal swimming pool, so I can have a fair guess.

I hate this, I say. It's totally unfair.

"It's not right at all," Hands says. "But some other things might not be right, either. Is attainment in tests an index for whether you're prepared for life? Because if you believe in that kind of thing, then you risk being the sort of person who believes in league tables as a useful metric of schools, which they aren't. Those friends of yours, in strategic terms, were essentially educated by politicians, while you were educated by educators. One kind of school had to deliver education filtered via politics; the other had the advantage of being able to deliver education straight."

Before I have time to digest this, he starts talking to me about his father, Rory, who left the independent sector to teach in the state system. Three of his siblings were successful and one wasn't--because he hadn't passed the eleven-plus exam. This, to Hands's father, was a sign of the problems of selection. He ended up running one of the biggest comprehensives in the country.

Rory Hands became entirely dismissive of politicians who interfered with the movement even though they were the ones who had instigated it. "You know all the ironies of that," his son says--"Thatcher closed more grammar schools than anyone else, yet used her own as the ideal. And Wilson and Callaghan sent their children to independent schools, just as Attlee and Gaitskell had done before them. …

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