Martin Boulton, high master
The school’s motto, a quote from Horace,
became better known after its use by
Immanuel Kant during the Enlightenment
Martin Boulton is high master of The Manchester Grammar
School, one of the country’s most famous schools, with
a distinguished history and reputation for academic
excellence. As the recipient of an assisted place to attend MGS in
the 1980s, he gives his perspective on the historic role played by
schools like MGS in social mobility and presents a model for what
can be achieved by an independent school in the present day.
The Manchester Grammar School’s commitment to social mobility dates back to
its foundation in 1515. The school was founded by Hugh Oldham, the Bishop of
Exeter, to “educate the poor boys of Manchester in godliness and good learning”,
and for more than 500 years it has sought to stay true to this founding mission.
The Social Mobility Commission report to parliament made depressing reading for
anyone with a belief that a child’s success in life should depend on their talents and
not their place of birth.
Our country’s professions – despite considerable effort to widen the pool of
talent from which they recruit – remain remarkably unrepresentative of the
public they serve: only 6 per cent of doctors, 12 per cent of chief executives
and 12 per cent of journalists today are from working-class origins.
There remains an entrenched and unbroken correlation between social class
and educational success: the income gap is larger than either the ethnicity gap
or the gender gap in schools. In short, Britain’s deep social mobility problem,
for this generation of young people in particular, is getting worse not better.”
[State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain:
Social Mobility Commission Nov. 2017]
»High master: Martin Boulton
»Founded in 1515
»Based in Manchester
»Type of school: Independent
boys’ day school; years 3-13
»No. of students: 1,545
»Sunday Times Northwest
Independent Secondary School
of the Year 2018
»Founded the New Islington
Free School, a state primary
in Manchester city centre, in
collaboration with Manchester
City Council
The Manchester
Grammar School
Highlighting best practice
The problem is
to see that
every boy and
girl gets a
chance of the
offered by
such schools
as Manchester
When social mobility is debated, the
existence of independent schools is
often cited as the most significant
barrier, but this report shows that
where you are born is a more
significant indicator of outcome than
any other single factor, including the
type of school you attend.
It is hoped that the example of
what one independent school, The
Manchester Grammar School (MGS),
is trying to do might help to move the
debate away from naive assumptions
about the sector, by showing how such
schools can be part of the solution and
encourage similar schools to do more.
Historically, MGS has been seen as a
beacon of what education should be.
When the comprehensive system was
first being debated, those advocating
a solution to the problems of the
tripartite system (technical/secondary
modern/grammar) believed that MGS
would still play a part in ensuring that
boys from working class backgrounds
could climb the social ladder. In the
Commons debate on comprehensive
education in January 1965, Mr Leslie
Lever, Labour MP for Manchester
Ardwick, said the following:
What the Ministry is trying to do
is to see that every boy or girl has
an opportunity of being educated
to the standard of the Manchester
Grammar School. It is not a question
of bringing that school down—no
Minister of Education on either
side of the House will ever do that.
The problem is to see that every
boy and girl gets a chance of the
education offered by such schools
as Manchester Grammar School.”
[Hansard: 21 January 1965
vol. 705]
The reason that it was unthinkable
that MGS should be brought down
was because its intake included huge
numbers of boys from disadvantaged
backgrounds. In the 1975 debate on
the fate of the direct grant schools,
Lord St. John-Stevas said the following:
Perhaps the most famous direct
grant school in the country is
Manchester Grammar School. The
home background of the pupils is
as wide a range of people as will be
found in any school in the country.”
[Hansard: 27 October 1975
vol. 898]
More than 60 per cent of the pupils had
their fees paid by the state, their local
authority or the school itself, and they
were joined by boys from families who
could afford to pay for their education.
MGS pupils went on to be doctors,
chief executives and journalists, as well
as politicians, barristers, sportsmen,
theatre directors and the recipients of
a Nobel prize and a Fields Medal.
State and local authority support to
enable disadvantaged pupils to attend
schools like MGS ceased in 1997 when
the assisted places scheme, which had
replaced direct grant, came to an end.
The many faces of MGS
This might have been the point where
the school became just another fee-
paying institution, where ability to pay
rather than academic potential was the
factor that determined whether or not
a place could be taken up.
MGS’s staff and alumni, however, were
determined that this should not be
the fate of the school, and a journey
was begun to establish a bursary fund.
The early stages of fundraising aimed
at ensuring that boys from the most
disadvantaged backgrounds could still
attend MGS in numbers that would
ensure that its meritocratic essence did
not disappear entirely.
The scale of giving over a 20-year
period has been extraordinary. A fund
has been built up which today stands
at over £27 million. During the last two
decades over 500 pupils have received
a bursary. The bursaries are means-
tested, but almost all of the awards are
full-fee bursaries. The average bursary
award is 93 per cent of the fee.
Despite this success, the school is still
a long way from delivering the sort of
social mobility it achieved during the
days of the direct grant. Around 17 per
cent of pupils in the senior school benefit
from a bursary, compared to over 60
per cent under the direct grant scheme
in the 1960s. Each year the school turns
away around fifty pupils who would
qualify for a place on merit, because
there are insufficient funds available.
If the standard state funding for
children in receipt of free school meals
could follow them to the school, the
bursary fund could meet the additional
costs and ensure that more than a
third of places could be awarded to
those from disadvantaged households.
Unlike the days of the direct grant the
school would not receive the whole
fee; the cost would be the same as if
the pupil attended any state school,
ensuring that there would be no
additional cost to the state. The benefit
would be that more working-class
children could receive an education
that rivals the very best in the world.
Allowing this more flexible approach to
funding would not solve the problems
of this country’s education system, nor
would it address the myriad problems
of social inequality. However, it would
make an immeasurable difference to
a small number of young people, and
might go some way to ensuring that
a greater proportion of doctors, chief
executives and journalists come from
working-class families.
Today around
17 per cent of
pupils in the
senior school
benefit from a
compared to
60 per cent
under the
direct grant
scheme in the
The days before Margaret Thatcher
became education secretary “Dare to be wise”