Eastleigh by-election: Maria Hutchings' private school comments weren't the only cause of defeat, but they highlight Tory hypocrisy on education

Scrapping public schools would be a step towards a more meritocratic society

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Having suggested that it was “impossible” for her son to get a satisfactory education at state school, Maria Hutchings' bid to snatch Chris Huhne's seat in the hotly contested Eastleigh by-election always seemed destined for failure. The humiliation handed out to the Tories last night, however - a third place finish behind Ukip -goes further than most predicted.

Hutchings' comments were a bigot-gate-esque moment which the Conservative candidate will probably live to regret, and though the result may not have hinged upon it (the no-show at a hustings probably did her no favours), the outburst can be used to highlight how out of touch – and hypocritical - Tory education policy is.

Whilst supposedly supporting equality of opportunity and a higher level of basic education, the Conservatives (and the other major parties) would never contemplate abolishing the two-tier system Britain maintains.

Currently, the standard of education children receive is broadly determined by hereditary income: attending the best schools in the country partly depends upon whether your parents can afford the fees.

At over £160,000, the basic price of a five year education at Eton College is far beyond the means of the average British family. The advantages of attendance, though, are easily grasped by Hutchings and the public alike.

Heading private

A quick skim through Etonian attainment is all that is required to see how beneficial private education is. Last summer, not a single student received a D grade or below in any GCSE subject. Compare that to a state school in Hutchings' constituency, where less than 60 percent of pupils achieved A*–C grades in five GCSE subjects, including Maths and English, and the shocking disparity in standards becomes obvious.

Meanwhile, the nearby sixth form, Barton Peveril College - hardly an under-achieving institution – saw seven per cent of it's A Level results graded as A*'s; whilst Winchester College, a private school near Eastleigh, achieved A*'s in 50 per cent of their Pre-U examinations. Equal opportunities indeed.

But not only are attainment levels and the quality of teaching enhanced in public schools, the connections students can make there almost justifies the extortionate fees alone.

Having attended private school, the chance of gaining an Oxbridge education is also dramatically increased. This then allows students further contacts and the cycle perpetuates.

Despite the fact that only seven per cent of the UK population attended public school, they make up around 35 per cent of MPs, 70 per cent of finance directors and 75 per cent of judges. This makes changing the system harder, since the privately educated dominate the professions.

So perhaps Hutchings does have a point. After all, who can blame parents for wanting the best for their children; especially when the gap between state and private attainment is so staggering? Despite this inequality, clearly privately educated students should not be victimised or discriminated against. Like children at the other end of the spectrum, the nature of their background is no fault of their own. It is the system that needs restructuring.

Sceptics might argue that parents should have the freedom to send their children where they please. Perhaps they might wish to tell a working class family who cannot afford the best schooling just that.

“They can get scholarships,” continues the argument, and in a minority of cases the point is valid. But - as usual – these fail to cater for the 'average' child – who merely continues in their average school and leaves with average life prospects.

Fairer

To put it in crude terms, is it really fair that a child of middling academic potential, whose parents can afford private tuition, has better opportunities than a similar child whose family can not?

Granted, life might not be fair, but surely we should still strive to make it fairer regardless.

The abolition of private schools would be a good starting point. Their very existence is elitist, they are degrading and morally questionable.

The real issue then, is not whether abolition is agreeable, but whether it is achievable.

The practicalities of such a radical overhaul are complex at best: how would teaching standards be balanced across the country? What legal complications might arise? And what would be done with the old public schools?

Hutchings and the Conservative party – whilst wholeheartedly disagreeing with such a proposal – would also argue that these hurdles cannot be overcome. But with the vast array of resources and think tanks at the government's disposal, surely valid solutions to all of these problems could be arrived at. One might even hope that their private education provided the skills required to overcome such issues unaided.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether they believe in what they preach. Achieving equality of opportunity and a meritocratic society is a goal which the vast majority of mainstream politicians agree with; and scrapping public schools would be a step towards that aim.

Such an outcome is of course highly unlikely though, not least because Hutchings and her cronies then really would find it “impossible” to provide their children with a superior education.

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