A square peg on the right; profile; George Walden

A Tory MP against private education? Geraldine Bedell on an independent thinker
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The Independent Online
George Walden, dissident and iconoclastic, is not a man given to compromises. He took his daughter away from Goldolphin and Latymer, a London independent school with an excellent reputation, because her English lessons involved studying scripts of Boys From The Black Stuff. "I told them: 'I pay you to teach my daughter Keats.' " When they failed to do so, he sent her to Westminster.

Walden has no doubts about what constitutes a fine education. Nor is he in doubt that the majority of children aren't getting one. Britain can never have a first-class education system, he says, as long as the majority are relegated to second-class status - as long, that is, as private schools exist.

This may seem a curiously recusant position for a Tory MP (Walden is the member for Buckinghamshire), even if he is leaving politics at the next election. He does not expect his views to be warmly received by his Conservative colleagues or on the left - but that is precisely his point; public debate about education has become a pious fraud. Tomorrow he publishes a book (We Should Know Better, Fourth Estate) in which he sets out to cut through what he sees as the "deadly taboo" about private schools.

In elegant, essayist's prose, Walden confronts the academic superiority of the private schools. The days are gone, he says, when private school customers were simply snobbish and a very large number of state schools were academically outstanding. Today, it can safely be assumed that an independent school will be academically superior to all but a fraction of those in the state sector. The 7 per cent of pupils who attend private schools produce (for example) 41 per cent of A grades at A-level.

Yet even as the gap has widened, and become the subject of avid debate at middle-class dinner tables, the peculiarities of British educational apartheid have ceased to figure as a political issue. The issue of private schools is so riddled with self-interest, envy, guilt and defensiveness that it seems to politicians of both parties best left alone.

Walden argues that "the screening out of the sons and daughters of the affluent and influential from the rest of society for their formative years ... and the consequent indifference of their parents to what goes on in state schools ... severs our educational culture at the neck." And he proposes a solution: the creation of a third, "Open" sector, gradually to comprehend any independent school with an interest in remaining academically competitive.

These Open Schools would be state-funded and selective, ensuring not only that our elite schools were genuinely elite, but also that in a kind of trickle-down effect, the most influential parents in the land would at last interest themselves in state education.

This second part of his proposal rather arrogantly presupposes that the most affluent 7 per cent are capable of having more impact on the state system than the 93 per cent who are using it. But Walden is not afraid of this conclusion. All countries have elites, he says, and the wives of cabinet ministers are a force to be reckoned with.

Walden is not (unlike, he would say, many people involved in education) viscerally alarmed by elites, possibly because he has always sensed he would be part of one. He went from a state primary school to the direct- grant Latymer Upper in West London and thence to Cambridge. He followed a brilliant career in the Foreign Office with a second brilliant career in politics, then resigned from both, fearing boredom. He would simply prefer that elitism could not be bought, and that exposure to the best was as widely available as possible.

GEORGE WALDEN was born in 1939. His mother was divorced - he can only recall having met his father once - and the family lived with an uncle who worked for Ford in Dagenham, then later "dodged about" trying to get a house, before finally settling in Perivale. His mother, a "very junior civil servant", believed in the virtues of education, and encouraged George and his elder sister, who subsequently went to Oxford and became a grammar school teacher.

Returning recently to make a speech at Latymer Upper School, Walden pointed out, to some discomfiture, that nowadays he wouldn't have been allowed in. (The school, formerly direct-grant, is now independent.) "Oh, I might have been thrown a crumb, but you can't build a future on those sort of patronising social relationships, on the assumption that a few bright people will get through anyway."

After Cambridge (where he played drums in a jazz band that also featured David Frost on guitar) he spent a year in Russia before joining the Foreign Office, where he learnt Chinese and lived in Peking during the Cultural Revolution. Back in London and on the Russian desk, he developed characteristically independent doubts about why we went on harbouring so many known Russian spies. "No one could answer: it was thought to be 'good for relations'." He argued his - as he saw it - common-sensical case, and devised a scheme which eventually resulted in the expulsion of 105 Russians. "They took us much more seriously after that."

At the age of 38 he was plucked from the Paris embassy to be principal private secretary to the then foreign secretary, David Owen, and subsequently to Lord Carrington. An ambassador's life loomed. But Walden's wife, Sarah, has a career of her own as a leading picture restorer, and he disliked the idea of never seeing his children. Most tellingly, probably, he was aware of how humdrum ambassadorial life could be. In 1983 he resolved to find the pounds 25,000 a year required to keep his three children at the schools for which the Government had hitherto paid, and to enter politics.

He has always been too dissident to fit snugly into the coarsely oppositional atmosphere of Westminster, too much given to calling a spade a spade. John Major, he says, is "a man devoid of imagination, who speaks like Jeffrey Archer writes". Prince Charles used to ask to see him to talk about education "in a sort of hand-wringing way". The Department for Education has difficulty recruiting first-class civil servants: "Who wants to be involved in the administration of a second-tier system?"

His Conservative colleagues are clearly not about to embrace his proposals for undermining private schools. And he knows there is "nothing sensible Tony Blair can say about private schools. I know what I'd say in his position: 'Let's concentrate on the schools that the majority of children attend.' But we're talking about more than a million parents opting out, so it's rubbish, and he knows it's rubbish. I've talked to him about these things."

Walden's book has as much to do with the state of British culture as with its schools. "Talk about distressed gentlefolk, with cramped deferential attitudes," he says in exasperation at the reams of coverage given over to the Royal Family and the Church of England. Though not anti-monarchist (as a former diplomat, he is firmly in favour of the Royal Yacht), he is unequivocally anti-snobbery. "Don't expect us to defer to low-grade people. Diana is a low-grade person."

HIS most important contribution as a politician was probably to oppose the sale of ITV franchises to the highest bidder. Fearing this promised pap for the population even as a second-rate education was eroding its critical faculties, he was instrumental in getting quality thresholds incorporated into the Broadcasting Bill.

He became a junior minister, responsible for higher education, after only two years in Parliament, but resigned after another two, partly in alarm at the prospect that schools would be unable to provide enough competent candidates to justify the expansion of the universities. Now he has also resigned as an MP. What he will do next is unclear. He would like to renew his association with Russia and China. He may possibly get involved in publishing. (He chaired the Booker prize judges last year). He has already written one novel, Little England, which is with his agent: a satire involving a slightly dilapidated middle-aged MP who wakes up one morning to discover that he and his countrymen have turned into dwarves (He is, he says, "allergic to little Englander, petty, defensive, ratty nationalism," which he sees as all of a piece with our cramped and twisted attitudes to class and education). He may well write more.

He is wearily conscious that he will be vilified both from right and left for the current book. The right will attempt to "foreignise" him - "it is a great sin nowadays to have been abroad". The left will juggle with what he sees as their usual contradictions: though committed to a one-tier education system in theory, Labour (especially New Labour) cannot abolish the two-tier one. Tied to comprehensives, as he says, umbilically, the left too often defends underperforming schools for reasons that have more to do with heart than head.

There are, he acknowledges "a hundred objections to my proposals", not least of which is their impracticability as long as logic is trapped behind political dams of self-interest and sentimentality - though this is all the more reason to open the debate. Walden insists he doesn't want to be involved in policy once he leaves politics, which is a pity, because his mind slices through political shibboleths. His proposals on private schools are genuinely radical, and the closest anyone has yet come to the reform of a two-tier education system that is not only antiquated but shaming.