Michael Bawtree: The lesson is clear: get rid of private schools

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The Independent Online

"Educational Apartheid" is a phrase used most recently by Dr Anthony Seldon on the front page of The Independent last week, one which aptly describes the present situation of education in the UK. Statistics that have been quoted in the public domain over the last decade suggest that the average UK child is slipping behind his counterpart throughout Europe and other parts of the developed world. By whatever measure, the UK seems to be falling in the ranks.

Like Seldon, I am worried and frustrated about the never-ending debate on the woes of our educational system and the inability of successive governments to move towards a solution. Like Seldon, I deplore the bi-polar nature of our educational system. And like Seldon, I have taught in a number of well-known independent schools. That's probably where the comparison ends. During the second half of my working life as a teacher of mathematics, I decided to take a position in a state comprehensive school of 1,600 pupils, aged 11-16. Incidentally, this school was originally built for some 900 pupils. I retired last July, after 37 years in teaching.

Attitudes amongst teaching staff are entrenched on both sides of the divide. It was a struggle in the comprehensive school to address the "delightful problem" of the able and gifted child. In my own time, and that of my students, I laid on extra lessons in maths beyond the GCSE curriculum, but was told, "they will get there anyway, so why give them extra time and attention?"

If anyone has ever taught in a state comprehensive school, they will appreciate that we treat somewhat glibly the needs of the non-academic "half" for an education that is in tune with their futures. Do we honestly treat the educational aspirations of the non-academic "half" with the same respect as the academic aspirations of the others?

It would make a very interesting study to draw up a list of some 20 or 30 criteria and compare the findings in a typical state comprehensive and a typical private day school. It would become obvious why people are so keen to get their children into private schools (assuming they can afford it) or into the best state school (as a second best) if all else fails.

Without quoting chapter and verse, successive post-war governments have passed various resolutions in an attempt to improve the lot of those pupils whose parents could not afford to send them to "better" (private) schools. In so doing, they have attempted to placate both sides of the divide. Thus, the debate goes on; a few years later another bill is passed, tinkering with those that went before. Echoes, maybe, of "deck chairs on the Titanic".

After my ten years of teaching in a comprehensive school, I have come to the conclusion that until we get rid of the overwhelming majority of independent schools, that, in reality, pay lip service to the idea of 'serving the local community' in order to justify their charitable status, nothing of any substance will ever happen in the state sector. Creating a handful of bursaries that are intended to offer a highly academic education to a few pupils who could not otherwise afford it looks good on the surface and may satisfy the Charity Commission, but, in reality, it is patronising and fails to grasp the real mettle.

If this conclusion has a pessimistic ring to it, it is because most of those who have the necessary power in our society to bring about substantial change were educated in private schools. Furthermore, they will have sent their own children to such schools (and, in many cases, the one to which they and their parents went before them).

At the very heart of the problem is the fact that all those parents who can, send their children to private schools for very obvious reasons; as do many who find it a financial struggle. These parents, by and large, are those in society who hold the best jobs, who are the most eloquent and who have the greatest political clout. So long as they can buy the best, they will rarely, if ever, speak out against the poorer standards that they have side-stepped with the help of their wallets. How long would paying parents tolerate a school designed for 900 pupils trying to educate 1,600?

There are some independent schools that deserve to remain so – special schools for the disabled/statemented child and a few specialist schools catering for a relatively small handful of students. However, for the rest, I dare to suggest that their dissolution is the only means of obtaining the political force required to bring about the change that will once again see the UK's educational system ranking as high as it ought.

The author has worked as a maths teacher in both the independent and state sectors