A glance at the upper echelons of British society, from the City and the Civil Service to politics and the media, reveals a familiar picture of social immobility, with a private education the most reliable predictor of high income and social status. In some respects, Britain is even less of an opportunity society than it was, say, 20 years ago, when the grammar school boy John Major was in Downing Street.
We are familiar with the background of the incumbent, which no one should hold against him personally. For David Cameron is merely the most high-profile example of a disappointing trend. In the case of the press, if we may be allowed a moment for introspection, it is odd that almost all of the national newspaper pundits who air their views on the plight of our state schools do not themselves send their children to one, at least at the secondary stage. Similarly with large swathes of the political classes.
So public debate is often skewed by a lack of first-hand experience. Social immobility and a “two-nation” school system have become, bewilderingly, accepted facts of life, or at least ones that no longer arouse the sorts of passions they did, say, in the 1960s. That was a time when the national mood would no longer tolerate such privilege, and it triggered a massive investment in state education and expansion of the universities.
That undoubtedly promoted improvements in social mobility, though the simultaneous destruction of the grammar schools may well have undermined that.
Instead of the grammar schools, it might have been better had the governments of that era decided to destroy the public schools. Even at that time of seemingly limitless progressive ambition that would have been tricky. Today, it is even less imaginable. It is true that the public schools embody profound injustice, as they always have, and their charitable status is a joke, a tax break for the few that is an insult to the many.
They cream off many of the best teachers, enjoy lavish facilities, and they are at the centre of alumni networks that state schools can only dream of. But formulating legislation to outlaw them would be even more of a farce. Even Alan Bennett, the latest critic, might acknowledge that. Other bright minds are considering how best to leverage the undoubted excellence of our public schools for the wider public good.
Hence the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s talk about tearing down the “Berlin Wall” that divides state and private sectors in education. So far, however, talk has been the limit. Concrete measures need to follow.
As a condition of their charitable status, Ofsted is now suggesting, the public schools should share sports facilities with state schools. This is a start. Bursaries for poorer children in the area should also be greatly expanded, perhaps on a lottery basis. Then – again, on condition of charitable status – the accounts of private schools must be opened up to give full details of bursaries.
None of this will revolutionise social mobility. That depends on improving the state sector itself – and it remains to be seen whether academies, free schools and all the other recent experiments will make much difference. But the public schools can certainly “do their bit”, as they might say on their verdant playing fields.
It would be a bit rich to expect David Cameron to say he wanted to deliver an Eton education for every British pupil, but he knows better than most the benefits that a good schooling can bring to a clever boy.