King Edward’s School chief master John Claughton talks about the future of Birmingham’s second oldest institution.
King Edward’s School is the second oldest surviving institution in the city of Birmingham, second to St Martin’s Church, Digbeth where members of the Gild of the Holy Cross used to worship in the late 14th century.
It is that guild to which King Edward awarded the charter to found King Edward’s School in 1552, one of thirty schools he founded in his short reign.
When the school was founded, Birmingham was little more than a village and from 1552 to 1937 King Edward’s School dwelt on New Street – and there’s a blue plaque and a King Edward’s House to prove it.
For the last century of that time, it occupied a mighty neo-Gothic building designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, whose next commission was the Houses of Parliament.
In 1937 it moved out from the smoky city centre to the leafy suburbs of Edgbaston, where it dwells happily with its sister school, King Edward VI High School for Girls.
It’s not just Chief Masters who think that, since the mid-19th century, King Edward’s School has been one of the great schools of this country. From that time it created a curriculum that showed due regard to science and to humanities so that it produced an Archbishop of Canterbury, Benson, a great scientific polymath, Francis Galton, and the artist Edward Burne-Jones.
However, it is in the 20th century that it was at its acme, the school of Tolkien, Field Marshal Slim, Enoch Powell, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Oddie, two Nobel prize-winners, Maurice Wilkins and Sir John Vane, a winner of the Fields Medal, Richard Borcherds, the writers Jonathan Coe and Lee Child.
And the school was at its very best when it was a Direct Grant school, when 85 per cent of boys were here for free and every bright boy in the West Midlands could come. When league tables were invented, King Edward’s School was number one.
Since the power and wealth in education, like the power and wealth in most things, has moved south in recent times, and since the government no longer funds places in the school, King Edward’s School is no longer number one, but it is, by any measurement, one of the two best boys’ schools north of Oxford. King Edward VI High School for Girls is of similar standing.
It is perhaps more important that it is probably the most ethnically diverse independent school in this country – we are over 60% non-white – and one of the most socially diverse independent schools in this country: over 30% of our pupils get substantial fee remission and 15 per cent are here for free.
And it is a school that takes pride in the scale, range and diversity of all that it does: we even have the only school historical re-enactment group in this country, and that group pretends it’s 1391.
However, the organisation that is the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham is not just King Edward’s School and King Edward VI High School for Girls.
In the late 19th century, five grammar schools were created on the fringes of the rapidly growing city, at Aston, Handsworth, Five Ways, Camp Hill Boys and Camp Hill Girls.
The first two of these schools still remain in their original location, whilst the other three have taken their names to Barley Green and Kings Heath. All of these schools, now called selective academies, provide some of the best state education in this country for over 4,000 pupils.
In recent years, there has been one further addition to the family of schools with the creation of King Edward’s Sheldon Heath Academy, a non-selective local community school for 11-18 year olds was added to the impressive portfolio.
So, as one of the most significant educational charities in this country, what does it do now for Birmingham and what it will do in the future?
In a post-industrial world, where intelligence and education and the capacity to compete globally will be the key factors for success, the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham want to ensure that the world-class education that is delivered by all of its schools is known and available to all families in this city, so that those who can benefit most will have the chance of a transformational educational experience.
That must be of massive significance to Birmingham’s future.
If King Edward’s School is one of the oldest institutions in this city, then all the King Edward’s schools remain some of the most important.
Whilst King Edward’s is one of the oldest institutions in this city, it might also be argued that it remains one of the most important and it will continue to make itself as accessible as possible to all pupils, from all communities whatever their backgrounds.