Queen Elizabeth’s School in Barnet was founded in 1573, receiving its Royal Charter from Elizabeth I just a year after Harrow.
Then, as now, the two schools were not unconnected. Yet, as a scholarly history published to coincide with its 450th anniversary reveals, the Barnet school has charted a course very different from that of its contemporary a dozen miles to the south-west.
Former QE Headmaster Dr John Marincowitz’s new book explores in detail the changing social, economic and legislative conditions affecting schools over the centuries, as well as QE’s own history of precarity. It also relates QE’s rise in recent decades to become the country’s highest-performing state school.
“By the end of the 17th century, Harrow had become a magnet for the nation’s élite.”
While many independents nervously contemplate a future in which Labour abolishes VAT on fees and ends their business rates relief amid a cost-of-living crisis, they might perhaps learn from Marincowitz’s account of the bold adaptability that rescued QE from periodic existential crises.
QE was established on land in High Barnet sold by Harrow School benefactor John Lyon. Both schools accepted fee-paying boarders, and their early governing bodies were similar. Yet Harrow had a substantial endowment, quickly generating an annual income ten times that of QE’s. This allowed it to shift its focus from local clientele to attracting the sons of the upper gentry and aristocracy: by the end of the 17th century, Harrow had become a magnet for the nation’s élite.
By contrast, QE struggled to recruit good staff, and in 1594 the Master, John Boyle, was arrested for debt. In 1634, Governors grasped the nettle, overturning the Charter’s provision for free tuition for local boys and introducing such fees for all except only the very poorest day boys.
“QE struggled to recruit good staff, and in 1594 the master was arrested for debt.”
Twenty years later, the appointment during the Commonwealth of William Sclater as Master again placed the school in jeopardy. Sclater had been among the royalists arrested in the wake of Charles I’s execution in 1649, narrowly escaping the death penalty — as Marincowitz wryly puts it: “His subsequent appointment as Master is surprising.” Concerned he might leave them in the lurch, the Governors took the extraordinary step of requiring him to pay a bond of £100 against this eventuality.
As the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries rolled on, industrialisation and imperialism transformed England’s economy into the world’s strongest. The middle classes grew in both numbers and affluence. QE progressively modernised its curriculum, abolishing the requirement for teaching to be conducted in Latin. Yet financial pressures lingered, and its maintenance costs were often met by Governors personally.
Following the Clarendon Commission of 1861, Harrow’s future was secured as it, along with six other leading boarding schools, was swept into the embrace of the Public Schools Act 1868.
“A London suburb sprang up, but QE stayed as it had been when Barnet was a Tudor market town.”
For its part, QE had by then become an anachronism. While around it a middle-class London commuter suburb sprang up, QE remained as it had been when Barnet was a Tudor market town: 50 boys taught by two staff in a single-roomed schoolhouse. It needed reorganisation and substantial investment – changes well beyond the scope of its governance and finances.
The Endowed Schools Act of 1869 was the state’s response to the plight of QE and other schools like it. A scheme for QE replaced the 1573 Charter with a new instrument of government, provided funding for more classrooms and teachers, and abolished boarding. Fees levied on affluent parents became the School’s financial mainstay, although a gradually increasing proportion of state-funded scholarships was awarded. Many schools that are today squarely in the independent sector took similarly pragmatic steps, admitting free pupils to access state grants.
In 1932, QE moved to a new site provided and owned by Hertfordshire County Council. A golden age of grammar schools ensued, receiving fresh impetus from the 1944 Education Act that abolished fees for all pupils in state-funded secondary schools. Longstanding Headmaster E H Jenkins successfully rode the wave, and by the early 1960s, QE was an academic school with an increasingly socially diverse body of 570 pupils and a sixth form of 170.
As Jenkins retired in 1961, the winds of change began to blow. Labour’s 1964 election manifesto, Barnet Council and QE’s new Headmaster, Tim Edwards, all promised that “comprehensivisation” would make a grammar school education available to all. QE duly became a comprehensive in 1971, its intake at 11 doubling at a stroke.
“QE had 60 empty first-year places in September 1983 and faced closure.”
However, a further shift in the education paradigm occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as high parental expectations of the new system were dashed. At QE, declining exam results, diminished university uptake and deteriorating pupil behaviour precipitated a collapse in confidence. QE had 60 empty first-year places in September 1983 and faced closure.
Into the breach in January 1984 stepped reforming Headmaster Eamonn Harris. As early as 1986, the school was oversubscribed, yet Harris pressed on to take advantage of new opportunities in an era of increased diversification in secondary provision. He pushed for QE to become a Grant-Maintained School, gaining new financial freedoms. Harris took advantage of another (temporary) freedom: the school reintroduced a fully selective admissions policy from September 1994.
“QE is today an ethnically diverse school with well over 3,000 boys competing for 180 places every year.”
From Harris’s retirement in 1999 and through the 1999–2011 headship of Marincowitz, exam results continued to improve, while regular parental giving through the focused Friends of Queen Elizabeth’s charity supplemented state grants to provide high-quality facilities. Under my own headmastership, QE is today an ethnically diverse school with well over 3,000 boys competing for 180 places every year; we received our sixth consecutive highly laudatory Ofsted report in 2022. I have my own links with Harrow: an alumnus of The John Lyon School, I now serve as a Governor at Harrow School itself.
My predecessor’s book demonstrates that the essential continuity in QE’s history has been its continued adaptability through constantly changing contexts. As I put it at our 450th anniversary thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey, “our remarkable school has often flourished, but always survived,” its story “not one of ceaseless success, but rather one so often characterised by resilience and adaptation”.