Dulwich was recently pronounced to have the highest concentration of schools in Europe. The basis for this could be challenged and it may have rivals, but there are probably few other places five miles from the centre of a major capital city where 1200 acres of land have remained continuously in control of the same educational charity for the past four hundred years. Dulwich has become an international brand name as closely linked to the excellence of a home-reared product as Melton Mowbray is to meat pies. Education is clearly its dominant local industry, as is evident to anybody who has survived an encounter with the daily Dulwich school run.

To change the analogy, the central attraction of Dulwich stems from its remarkable constellation of three high-performing independent schools, Dulwich College, Alleyn’s School and James Allen’s Girls’ School, all of which have evolved from Edward Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift established in 1619. This provided for the education of twelve poor scholars by endowing the College with the entire Manor of Dulwich after Alleyn’s death. The Charity currently provides education for about 3800 children, nearly all selected as scholars but mainly not poor ones, with a combined annual operating budget of £50 million for the three Dulwich schools, now well beyond the revenue that can be produced by the Dulwich Estate.

Dulwich also has a planetary system of private and state schools, infant and junior, preparatory and secondary, all on the Dulwich Estate. These schools contribute to the fact that houses in Dulwich command a high premium, as much within the narrow catchment area for its state schools as within easy reach of the Foundation schools. Particularly over the past ten years, Dulwich has developed an uncomfortable reputation for being a privileged enclave, protected from the less favoured outside world by a dual financial screen of high house prices and rapidly rising school fees. Both of these have considerably outstripped UK general price increases and average incomes. Fees at each of the Foundation schools, including extras like school uniforms, lunches and coach travel, are now over £14,000 a year, which families have to meet out of taxed income. The total cost of doing this for seven years would be close to £100,000. Many children at the Foundation schools have also received a number of years’ education in private sector infants’ and preparatory schools; some linked to the Foundation schools themselves. The average UK annual household income is now £24,000, making the cost of paying for one child’s education unreal and more than one child impossible.

This financial problem was compounded in 1997, when the Government terminated its Assisted Places Scheme for children at selective private schools. It is now a principle of state education that selection of children on the basis of academic ability is socially unfair, and that government resources for education are better directed at improving performance standards in all schools. This is supposed to improve the social opportunities of under-privileged children but the financial gap between rich and poor has widened considerably during the past ten years and social mobility has evidently declined. Since a child’s social and career prospects are still thought to depend largely on the school it attends, and the best of these are still selective, it would present the worst of all worlds if access to these schools were barred to all parents who could not afford the fees, as a result of which there were to be a greater educational, social and financial separation of an elite group from the rest of the community. This would be in complete contrast from the early post-war situation that many of us still remember when more than 90 per cent of children at the Dulwich Foundation schools were on local authority scholarships, which paid all their fees and transport costs.

Any financial help now has to come from the schools themselves. The Foundation schools are fully conscious of this and are making it their first priority to build up their capacity to provide scholarships and bursaries most of which are related to parental income. These now benefit 800 (20 per cent) pupils. The annual value is around £5million which coincides roughly with the Dulwich Estate’s annual income distribution to its beneficiary schools (including those outside of Dulwich). The Foundation Schools have also received in recent years, two tranches of capital transferred from the Dulwich Estate.

It is a serious question where more funds to put towards bursaries can be raised. Fees are already high and it is clearly unreasonable to subsidise bursaries from fees paid by other parents. In current financial markets and with low interest rates it is less certain the Dulwich Estate can be relied upon to contribute as much income in future years to the schools. It will therefore be a challenge for Dulwich College to be able to fulfil its objective of ensuring within the next few years that no deserving applicant is excluded from entry because his family cannot afford the fees.

All of the Foundation schools have recently embarked on major new capital works, including theatres, music centres, swimming pools and sports facilities, which enhance the attraction and educational quality of the schools. The schools are also keen to present them as being to the benefit of the local community thereby fulfilling the Government’s criterion that to enjoy the benefits of being exempt from taxation they must demonstrate they are contributing to the ‘wider community need’. These works are usually expensive, and also raise difficult questions as to how best they are to be funded. Certainly, needs to fund such works compete with the need to fund bursaries and separate appeals are usually made. Donors sometimes find it more satisfying to contribute to the creation of a tangible amenity than to endow a scholarship or bursary.

Division of opinion as to selective or comprehensive education is too deep to be resolved in a Dulwich Society newsletter. The history of how similar social issues have been met by the Foundation schools for four hundred years is admirably brought out in Dr Jan Piggott’s magnificent new History of Dulwich College. This is much more than a chronicle of the College but also of changing attitudes to appropriate education for the poor, which have persisted throughout and appear still to do so. That is the enigma of Louise Simson’s elegant statue of Edward Alleyn with one hand outstretched to a barefoot boy. Was this to help him gain an apprenticeship and put shoes on his feet, or to go on to higher education if he had the ability to do so? The Foundation schools have firmly believed the latter, especially since the Charity was reformed in the middle of the nineteenth century, and appear to have every intention of continuing to do so.

by Bill Higman

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