Martin Stephen: A system designed by Lewis Caroll and Franz Kafka

From a speech by the chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, at St Andrews

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Do you feel that we live in a world where the script is being written by a strange combination of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka? We are seeking to send more and more young people to university and bemoaning the fact that young people from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds do not make it, whilst at the same time we are making it prohibitively expensive for just these young people to gain a degree.

Do you feel that we live in a world where the script is being written by a strange combination of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka? We are seeking to send more and more young people to university and bemoaning the fact that young people from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds do not make it, whilst at the same time we are making it prohibitively expensive for just these young people to gain a degree.

The independent sector is attacked as a bastion of privilege, yet in the direct grant scheme was responsible for sending more disadvantaged and working-class children to top universities than any scheme before or since, and even without government funding our sector has an extraordinary record in enabling the disadvantaged by its bursary schemes. We bemoan teacher shortages, but ensure that a young teacher coming into the profession from university will now start life with a debt significantly bigger than their annual salary.

Graduates earn more, we are told - the figures misleadingly based on a time when far fewer people graduated - but are not told how much more they pay. How long can we view ability as a resource to be taxed? How long before we view ability as this country's one remaining natural resource, and therefore not so much a taxable asset as a delicate crop to be nurtured?

Do you share my incredulity at the idea that 50 per cent of young people should go to university? Not because I believe, of necessity, that figure is wrong. Rather because the figure seems to have been picked out of a hat by a spin doctor for entirely political reasons.

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