Schools teach us our place in society - unfortunately

Rarely does anyone suggest that learning languages, science and history should be a joy

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Of course the top end of the education system is geared to perpetuating the élite. How else can you explain why every single law lord went to public school? Unless it's the same process that meant every boy from a school ended up in the same shipyard or pit. There's a historic legal-ruling factory in the Eton area, and on graduation day they all file out of one gate and into the other. And everyone there will tell you how their dad was a law lord, and his grandad was a law lord, and their family has been making outrageous senile statements about women for 13 generations, going back to the great wig disaster of 1842.

Of course the top end of the education system is geared to perpetuating the élite. How else can you explain why every single law lord went to public school? Unless it's the same process that meant every boy from a school ended up in the same shipyard or pit. There's a historic legal-ruling factory in the Eton area, and on graduation day they all file out of one gate and into the other. And everyone there will tell you how their dad was a law lord, and his grandad was a law lord, and their family has been making outrageous senile statements about women for 13 generations, going back to the great wig disaster of 1842.

To get round tax being paid on donations, public schools are even classified as charities. Though there is something to be said for giving money to an institution that takes upper-class kids and whacks them with a stick.

Yet according to Hague, instead of indulging in the politics of envy, Labour should concentrate on getting standards in state schools to the level of the private schools. Fair enough. At Rugby school the 700 pupils enjoy eight squash courts, six fives courts, 12 grass tennis courts, nine hard tennis courts, a gymnasium, swimming pool, 86 acres of playing fields, a theatre, two Steinway grand pianos and three organs. So the Tories would approve if that lot went to every comprehensive, would they? It could certainly pay for itself, as a game of fives between Rugby and Toxteth comprehensive would make a fortune on pay-per-view telly.

One of the problems in any discussion about educational privilege is that most beneficiaries of the system honestly don't see themselves as fortunate. I was once part of a panel which was asked questions about the media by members of an audience. One very influential panellist was asked why it was that so many people of influence in the media had been to Cambridge. And he replied that this was to be expected, because "we all employ people we trust, and the people I trust the most are those I studied with at Cambridge". So if I ever get a job high up in the media, I'll do the same, and employ all my old mates from Swanley Comprehensive. To start with, they can read the news. "Here, it's all kicked off in the Lebanon again. Go on, Hizbollah my son."

The top public schools and universities are bound to be elitist because their job is to teach kids to rule. They continued teaching Latin long after it had any social value, as a code that excluded the bulk of the population. Cricket was taught in public schools in the 19th century as "preparation for the more dangerous battlegrounds abroad". So every lesson is taught from a different perspective. I bet even in woodwork the teacher says, "The first thing you do is buy a forest. Then employ some lumberjacks and an accountant, and I'll come round in half an hour to check how you're getting on."

Referring to the class divide in education, Hague said yesterday, "This may have been the case 200 years ago but it certainly isn't the case now." But it was only 1984 when a senior official at the Department of Education wrote, "There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which society can not match. If we have a highly educated population we may possibly anticipate serious social conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place."

So the purpose of "getting a good education" is seen, by all sides of the debate, as to "get on", be "successful", meaning get a well-paid job, preferably in the law or the media. Rarely does anyone suggest that learning languages and science and history ought to be a joy. The great achievement of our educational system is to take subjects dripping with excitement, and turn them into tedious caverns of boredom. And it's why my memory of school is of gazing sleepily out of the window until a teacher said, "maybe you know the answer, Steel". To which my answer could only be "er, is it, er, is it Paris sir?". And the teacher would pause, to inflict maximum suffering, before snarling, "I see Steel, the President of America is Paris."

The Tories needn't worry, this Government isn't even starting to challenge the education hierarchy. They simply think they can win back their fading working-class support by trying to sound anti-snob for a week. But pensioners wouldn't be any less furious with New Labour if Gordon Brown had announced their 75p increase by saying, "Here you are pop, 15 bob a week extra me old sunshine, get yerself summink nice."

And students from working-class backgrounds are hardly likely to be endeared to New Labour by this stunt. Because the Government line appears to be that students shouldn't be prevented from attending higher education by an élitist selection panel. Because the tuition fees are supposed to put them off before they even get that far.

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