I had an interesting visit to Number 10 Downing Street the other week.
I queued on Whitehall and in the London rain, waiting with a good number of representatives from education and government, before being let into Downing Street itself. A brief ID check was followed by the usual scans and screening you’d get at airport control. The policemen came across as polite and efficient, if a little tired of having the same conversations with people who (like me) had never been to Downing Street before.
Then across the road and into Number 10 we all went, mobile phones handed in and coats to the cloakroom. It’s very Tardis-like. The corridors which follow the entrance hall with its black and white marble floor are broad and bright (the white and yellow dual paintwork does the trick, with the occasional splash of red carpet) and lead you up to the famous staircase. There, the black and white engravings and photographs of prime ministers watch as you ascend. There was no sign of David Cameron, however.
At the top of the staircase is the Terracotta Room which we went through before entering the Pillared Room, the largest of the state drawing rooms. There, under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, the Prime Minister and other government officials spoke to and with us about schools in England and education in general.
Towards the end of the reception I managed to linger a while on the staircase and eyeball the portraits of some of the Prime Ministers to have lived and worked in Number 10 for almost 300 years now.
William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, two giants of the nineteenth century who led the Liberal and Conservative parties respectively, appeared peacefully and side by side.
They didn’t exactly get on, however. Disraeli once said of Gladstone that he was a ‘sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself.’ If that sounds a little harsh, then Gladstone could hit back with equal force. But Disraeli generally kept the upper hand, famously describing Gladstone’s front bench as ‘a range of exhausted volcanoes’.
Yet one thing that Gladstone and Disraeli had in common was their commitment to education as a force for good in this country. Between them, acts were passed in the 1870s which established the state as having the responsibility for education on a national scale and making schooling compulsory. These acts had a practical as well as a moral basis, as British society started to modernize and catch up with industry.
Today, the state’s role in education is both indispensable and hugely significant. It still needs to listen to its schools, however, which is why Number 10 was an appropriate place to hold conversations ranging from curriculum reform to schools funding and the variety of schools in operation to principles of admission. State boarding schools are, of course, minority voices amidst the current educational cacophony, but the stories you’ll read on our website and the detail of our newsletter will show you that we are certainly one model of school which works and works well.
And as we move towards our 350th year, it’s reassuring to note that we have a good few years on Number 10 and the office of Prime Minister itself!