Interview: Dr Timothy Hands

Just over Magdalen Bridge, Magdalen College School’s gates face the porters’ lodge of St Hilda’s. Students use Christ Church’s recreation ground for PE; their cross country pitch overlooks Merton. With such proximity to Oxford University, it’s no surprise that MCS’s Oxbridge success rate is so high: this year, a record 47 pupils left for Oxford and Cambridge.

Much of the academic success of MCS has been attributed to its headmaster, Dr Tim Hands. Known for his criticism of government education policy over the last 30 years, this year he was elected chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents many independent schools in the UK. For Hands, one of the main outcomes of increasingly centralised education policy has been decreased access to the UK’s top universities for students from state schools.

He explains his objection to the government’s education policy. “I work in the independent sector now through a belief that a politicised state is a restrainer of and meddler with education. You ask me, why does this school do well? We avoid change. Governments by and large have, whether a red or blue colour, introduced diverse and confusing educational initiatives.”

This is one of the main barriers to university access, Hands claims. “If you’re constantly having to teach a new exam, you can’t get stability and rhythm in what you’re doing. All teachers are currently preparing for exams they don’t know the shape of, they don’t know the mark scheme for, they don’t know the specification for. It’s very wearing.” These changes favour independent school candidates because, “the more complicated you make systems, and the more you change them, the more disadvan taged those without advice are.”
He is critical of the coalition’s education reforms. Addressing the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference last month, he said that the last half century has been characterised by, “the intrusion of the government and the disappearance of the child” through education reform. Today, he is similarly scathing.

“Essentially the way Michael Gove wants to move the syllabus is to how it was when I was an undergraduate at Oxford — Middlemarch and so on. And you know, Middlemarch isn’t the best fare for everyone doing English at A-Level. There should be options that allow pupils to differentiate.”

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Hands’ belief in improving access rests on his life experiences. He was a “state school educated Cambridge reject”, only coming to Oxford for postgraduate study at St Catz and Oriel. His father grew up “in what was then condemned as a slum, and isn’t there anymore”. His family’s experience has influenced his understanding of how background can influence academic attainment. He speaks of how his father “couldn’t work in his home, because he didn’t have his own room, and the sound of the piano and guitar playing penetrated everywhere. So although he’s fantastically philosophical about things, you can see your background has to help.”

Nevertheless, he says, the impact of a students’ social background is exacerbated by the way Oxford approaches admissions. At other universities, bright students with the right grades would get in — at Oxford, the dependence on aptitude tests undermines this. When Cambridge introduced the A*, “Oxford said, we want aptitude tests. And you can see the advantage of that, you can strip down background and teaching and so on, but I’ve never been convinced that there’s such a thing as an exam you can’t prepare for.”

This, says Hands, has handed success to independent schools. There remains opposition to the A* grade, but the new grade is the only guarantor that intelligent state school students will be identified. For example, Gordon Brown opposed the A* because, “he felt that it would highlight achievement in the independent sector. Well, there’s only one way to make things better, and that’s confront problems and sort them. This was just him burying his head in the sand.”

Despite the importance of grades, schools must provide more than academic success. If schools are defined by league tables, they will encourage students to do useless, “easy” subjects. “The reason people do General Studies is to ratchet up another A-Level. That’s another high grade, which means your league position is higher. The Department for Education uses league tables as a mechanism, whereas we don’t believe in league tables. They tell you nothing about its pastoral care, its extra curricular activities, which are two of the tripos you need.”

There is a lack of aspiration in many schools, which further undermines access. “Before working in Oxford, which is by and large a middle class city, with higher educational aspiration, I worked in Portsmouth — it’s a poor area, which outputs peace or war depending on your reading of the Royal Navy. I had two students in my independent school who had places at Cambridge to read Maths, who turned them down to go to Warwick. They were suspicious of Cambridge and they thought Warwick was more friendly, a better deal. So raising aspiration has got to be an important thing, and all schools should be doing that.”

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The problem exists across the country. As Hands notes, “The Sutton Trust [an educational research charity] has shown that some schools will not recommend people to go to Oxford and Cambridge. Now these are fantastic universities, and the idea that you wouldn’t recommend people that were suitable to have a look or to take a try, that seems to me something that is regrettable.”

With these odds stacked against state school applicants, how do students from MCS compare? Are private school leavers over-prepared for Oxford, whether they deserve a place or not? Hands says not. “The flaw is that this idea presupposes that Oxford tutors are stupid people. It’s a very simplistic view that you can prepare for interview, and you know when you sit down with your tutor they go through that. They have minds that go right to the heart of the issue. It’s good to have help, but to have interview after interview is just counterproductive.”

Yet the press frequently suggests that independent schools heavily prep their students. He explains this through the fact that newspapers “want to sell”.

“There’s a stated policy of one newspaper, which I won’t name, that it wants to make you worried if you have your child at an independent school, or worried if you have your child at a state school… There are two myths in the press: one that Oxford discriminates in favour of independent schools, and one that it discriminates against them. Both of them can’t be true, and in reality, neither is.”

This expression of faith in the admissions process goes further than most teachers, and is surprising considering Hands’ broader critique of access. However, considering MCS’s success in Oxbridge admissions, it’s understandable.