Being back in Manchester for the Iran Reunion stimulated many thoughts especially as I had been invited to address the Sixth Form of Withington Girls’ School. Withington has consistently achieved the best A-Level results for girls in this country. What might there be in what I could say which could be useful to those girls, and helpful to the staff who are rightly proud of their achievements but fearful that, if they move away from their winning formula, the results might suffer. It’s tough at the top when everyone else wishes to supplant you. But just to be the best might in fact damage the good for everybody else.
This is an ages-old dilemma. Eric James, the High Master of Manchester Grammar School not a mile down the road from Withington, had led the school through twenty tumultuous post-war years by developing just such a winning streak. The school began to deliver more and better A-Level results than any other school in the country because, according to its critics, they simply cram them for the exams, and the Oxbridge interviews. One man who claimed to have been much harmed by this academic forced-feeding was Michael Young, whose own experiences of schooling in England and Australia led him to write the bestselling book The Rise of the Meritocracy. With their crippling sense of inferiority the English just loved this implied criticism of those they saw as ‘clever clogs’ and denigrated them as being no more than the ‘meritocracy.’ James was succeeded in 1963 (two years before I first met the boys who were to make up that Iran Expedition) by Peter Mason, a man with a less utilitarian approach to life, and education in particular and was affronted by the task of producing only a meritocracy. Taking the opportunity of reminding Old Boys and present pupils alike of the essential social and ethical purposes of education, he wrote a Foreword to the history especially commissioned to mark the schools’ 450th anniversary of its Founding by the then Bishop of Exeter, Hugh Oldham. He wrote:
“The idea that talents are leant for the service of others and not simply given, and that knowledge brings humility and a sense of involvement in mankind, are just as necessary correctives to the arrogance of a meritocratic in a highly technological world, as they were in Hugh Oldham’s day, and without them the school’s record of academic success would be indeed alarming.”
Mason went ahead and civilised the MGS curriculum. Considering the old ‘O Level’ exam, a mean test of a boy’s intellect, he actually narrowed the middle school curriculum, and reduced it from five years to four so as to put a greater emphasis on the Sixth Form which then became a three-year course. Here, too, Mason left his mark by insisting that a quarter of a boy’s time had to be spent on none examinal General Studies, and Community Service. Those members of the Iran Expedition were the result of such a philosophy of education. It was, and is, as Withington I’m sure would agree, something for which all schools should strive.
But the moral imperative which generations before Peter Mason hankered after is now being swamped by a vision of education excessively focused on ‘a new economic imperative of supply-side investment for national prosperity’ (David Blunkett, 2001). It is said that David Willetts, the new Minister for Universities, in his first dozen speeches since the Election has, on every occasion, spoken of universities as a preparation for employment and job creation and never once talked about universities equipping future generations to think straight so as to create people who will make good citizens. Unless the next generation is challenged to dare to be wise then society is in great danger.