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News > OP updates > How Portsmouth is PGS?

How Portsmouth is PGS?

12 Mar 2022
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
Foundation scholars, 1823
Foundation scholars, 1823

Fifty years ago this month, PGS governors visited agricultural land in South Hampshire looking for a potential site to build a new grammar school. Like Portsmouth, the island city, there was no room for the High Street site to expand. It was felt that this was limiting the school's ambitions. The cost of upkeep of the former barracks, a perception that a military atmosphere lingered and the unpopularity of the trek to Hilsea for games were other factors. And, not least, Headmaster Coll MacDonald pointed out that the number of pupils coming from the city had dropped from 80 to 50 per cent between 1957 and 1972.

Governors unanimously agreed that a move should be investigated and, following their visits, it was decided that a bluebell covered site at Barton's Copse, close to the current Havant crematorium, was the best they had seen, with the location's closeness to the city and transport links providing great potential for the school's future. Plans were made but ultimately came to nothing. One of the main reasons was that the value of the school sites and Hilsea playing fields was not enough to finance the relocation and construction of new buildings. 

The extent to which PGS may be considered a Portsmouth school is informed by both its physical location and its relationship with local cultural, civic and spiritual life. An important factor in the school's identity has always been its close ties with the Cathedral. From when the school opened in 1753, pupils sat in reserved pews in what was then the parish church of St Thomas’s and the Headmaster was generally in Holy Orders and helped to officiate there. But by far the most influential factor in a school's identity must surely be the pupils themselves.

Dr William Smith’s will, drawn up on his death bed in 1732, gave no clear indication whether he wanted to found a grammar school of fee payers, scholarship holders or a combination of the two. There is a suggestion that he felt such decisions were best left to the trustees, the Deans and Canons of Christ Church, Oxford and their successors. The author of a 1927 booklet on the history of the School had no doubts about the founder’s intentions, entitling one section, “Not thinking of a Charity School”. This is an issue that, over the years, has  helped inform any consideration of whether PGS truly reflects and represents the local population of Portsmouth. 

In the early nineteenth century it was recorded that the school roll was made up of 70-80 pupils “from the town’s leading families”. There was only one “free scholar”, “a red haired lad who became a grocer at Stepney”.   The implication that you can lead a horse to water, but that breeding will out, was a common argument for restricting a good education to those who could afford it.  

In 1811, a group of concerned local solicitors initiated a suit in Chancery arguing that the trustees should have been providing a hundred free places at the school for local people who could not afford the fees. This bid for the school to be established as a charity was contested and, after twelve long, bleak years, was settled, the outcome presenting a challenge for those managing the school over the next fifty years. 

 The school was required to educate, free of expense, 50 sons of Protestant residents willing to attend the parish church, between the ages of 7 and 17, for six hours a day. From 1823, “free boys” received schooling in Greek, Latin and the Christian religion, though writing and arithmetic attracted fees. Pupils who took up these places were not from the labouring classes. Of the 10 boys nominated for scholarships between 1842-44, 3 were from Naval families, and 7 the sons of tradesmen.  3 of the 10 had lost their fathers. Reports from masters and trustees suggested that admitting the sons of tradesmen deterred the gentlefolk of the terraces and villas of Southsea. 

The shrinking numbers of paying scholars led to a general decline in the fabric of the school alongside an increasing concern about the quality of the teaching. By the 1860s, there were only 26 boys on the school roll, 16 of whom were free scholars or “foundationers”. They were reported to be sons of shopkeepers, artisans of the Dockyard, clerks, retired army or naval officers or their widows. Prompted by a damning inspection, the headmaster blamed the free scholars’ low aspirations that were unsuited to a classical education, who left too early to benefit from it anyway. The Vicar of Portsmouth, Reverend Edward Grant, expressed concern that the boys he nominated for free places were never accepted by the headmaster.   By 1873 the school had no pupils at all and was described as ‘worthless and well nigh extinct’.  

The school was rescued by government action when the Endowed Schools Commissioners proposed a scheme of reform. This resulted in the school being classed as “a large Public School of the Second grade” (“for those of straitened means”), a day school “which might take free-placers, exhibitioners and pupil-teachers”. The Reverend Grant took a leading role in raising funds for the rebirth. 

In the 1900s, the School changed from a private organisation to one that worked with the Local Education Authority and Board of Education, receiving grants for modifying and improving the curriculum. In 1910, a grant was dependent on the School accepting 10 free scholars a year from the elementary schools which, again, caused alarm amongst fee-paying parents. Headmaster Nicol reassured them that, far from “lowering the tone”, they were “the pick of the elementary schools”. 

This arrangement – the direct receipt of grant aid from the local Board of Education - continued until the implementation of the Butler Education Act in 1944 which enabled the school to accept the status of a Direct Grant School.  In return for receiving state aid, a huge increase in free places for able pupils who had passed the 11+ was introduced. 25% of places were directly funded by central government, while the remainder attracted fees, some paid for by the Local Education Authority but most by private pupils. Fees were assessed on a sliding scale based on parental income, the balance being made-up by the state. 

The post-war meritocratic ideal had become a reality for many - the knock of opportunity could be heard by all, regardless of how much their parents happened to earn. The aim was to achieve “a wide social mixture and provide precisely the kind of background against which influential citizens of tomorrow can learn to live in a community where standing and authority depend on ability and character and not on privilege”. The school's intake included children from plush mansions in Craneswater to those from pre-fab council houses in Paulsgrove. 

Headmaster Lindsay reflected the spirit of the time, embracing the new arrangement. He did not believe that there was “any justification for better education remaining largely open to those who can afford to pay for it” but he was wary of total state provision as he felt it weakened parental responsibilities. The Direct Grant system – which enabled governors to retain control - seemed a perfect compromise, acting as a bridge between the state sector and the public schools. 

Thousands of boys of working-class families achieved a good general academic standard and started good careers, others went on to higher education and reached the very top of their chosen professions. But, as history teacher Ted Washington described it, the system “did not accord with the social and education philosophy of the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies”. The controversial abolition of the Direct Grant system provoked a Times editorial headed “No places for poor children”. The editor argued that the planned abolition would polarize secondary education into a selective independent sector and a comprehensive maintained sector, an outcome “destructive to the cause of educational opportunity”. And so it proved. 

Portsmouth Grammar School became an independent school in 1976. A pupil, writing in 1978, complained that “pupils are limited to those whose parents are wealthy enough to pay the fees or to make sacrifices to do so….the school is becoming a refuge for battered brats and shy softies…class difference has never been more accentuated during the past twenty or thirty years as now; education has become the dividing factor as never before. The Labour Party, in trying to make us all equal, has merely succeeded in making the more fortunate even “more equal” than they were before”. 

The introduction of the Assisted Places Scheme in 1981 enabled an average of 30 pupils a year to be offered help towards their tuition fees, the amount on a sliding scale linked to family income.  Many Oxford and Cambridge University applicants were pupils at PGS under the scheme – in 1988, seven out of 21 applicants. The scheme was abolished in 1997 by the Blair government which argued that it was elitist and a waste of public money. 

The apparent lack of political will by any party to address the wasted potential of young people created by this pulling up of the ladder has made the sponsorship of bursaries all the more vital. From at least Victorian times, individual Old Portmuthians, members of the school community and others who valued the difference that PGS can offer, have helped out, funding bursaries, offering those precious gifts of hope and opportunity. Such help is needed now, more than ever before.   

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