Labour's Egalitarianism: Private education - How we can have our cake and eat it

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The Independent Online
Just for a moment there, I thought the middle classes were going to get away with it. The word going around the smart dinner parties was that Blair's men were realists. They would not interfere with the comforts that make up for the stresses of pursuing a professional career.

Of course, they could be as "inclusive" as all hell; but our private pleasures would be immune from invasion by rough sorts. Improve the national health service by all means; but privately-insured appendices would still be taken out in one of those nice Bupa facilities. Support the arts, but ``access'' would not mean yobs at the opera; and as for education - well, a few extra billion go to state schools, but what we pay for keeps its character.

Labour's shadow ministers made the right noises before the election, and since May they have sturdily stood by the rights of the affluent - and sometimes not-so-affluent - to pay for those little extras which make life more comfortable.

It's the sort of message that makes the professional's heart sing as he picks up his Independent (or some other, nameless, broadsheet) in the village near his weekend cottage. It's also a message that causes Labour activists to do unBlairite things, such as giving Ken Livingstone's political career the kiss of life. The word "betrayal" still comes easily to the lips of the Labour rank-and-file.

But there is a sting in the New Labour tail - if they can hold their nerve (tobacco and foxes are not good omens). In recent days the Government has turned out two of its principal charm-merchants to tell Labour's traditional class enemies how safe they are; this is the equivalent of the football club chairman's vote of confidence in the manager. It is blindingly obvious that inside the velvet glove the steel fist is flexing itself.

Those who abandoned the Blue Team on 1 May, assuming that all the nasty redistributive nonsense had been knocked out of Labour by that nice Mr Blair, had better think again; socialism was never just about money. Today the vogue word is "inclusion"; it may not mean more taxes for the affluent, but if it means what I think it means, there are many who would happily part with some extra dosh rather than be inclusive.

The first signs came from the arts. There was rejoicing when the poetry- reading, intellectual Friend of Tony, Chris Smith, got the Ministry of Culture gig; Mr Smith has lived up to his reputation as a man who knows his arts from his elbow, with positive announcements and appearances on screen, in print and in the theatre. But his determination to let ordinary folk enjoy the delights of grand opera is clearly making some uneasy. The management of Covent Garden are faced with rumblings amongst backers, who wonder why they should pay large amounts of money to mix with hoi polloi. They want everyone to enjoy opera; but that's not the same as saying that ``their'' Covent Garden should be the People's Opera. Smith is right, of course, and they are wrong; but it is their money which allows the Opera House to do much of what it does. Will they enjoy rubbing shoulders with people who think of opera as football theme music? They are now face to face with the true meaning of "inclusion"; you can have what you like, but you may have to share some of it with people you don't like. In the next few months we will begin to see just how ``new'' some of Labour's rich new friends really are.

Even more sticky is the question of what to do about independent, fee- paying schools. Most of them are day schools; many of them used to be in the state sector. Relatively few are of the great historic boarding school stamp.

Let me declare an interest; my own children, by dint of hard work and talent, qualified for entry to one of the five most successful schools in the country. It used to be the grammar school in my area when I was a child; it is now independent. I knew, at the age of 11, that its pupils were different; when my school met them in Top of the Form, having given us a sound thrashing they gave us three ``hurrahs'', whilst we shouted ``hooray''. But they've changed. Now they too say ``hooray''; they play sports against local schools; and this is probably the most genuinely multicultural school I've seen in this country (and I've filmed in dozens over the years). It would have been perverse to have turned down the chance for my own children to benefit from what the school has to offer, purely because money is involved. And in London we are not unusual; the crisis in our capital's schools is now so extreme that one-sixth of parents choose to pay for education even if they can scarcely afford it. All the independent schools are hugely oversubscribed. It's not surprising, when you are told that local state schools cannot guarantee uninterrupted schooling, that five GCSEs is regarded as an outstanding performance, and that the school can't afford set texts. Though there are no available statistics, the anecdotal evidence suggests that desire for what independent schools offer is strongest amongst those who regard themselves as most disadvantaged and excluded: the ethnic minorities.

Getting rid of the independents won't solve the problems of the state schools. And there is little or no proof that an injection of middle-class energy to a state school will lift results for all; it is just as likely that, as with most public services, the middle classes will bully their way into soaking up a disproportionate share of publicly funded resources. But something clearly has to be done to avoid the growth of educational apartheid. That is why the speech by the Education Minister, Stephen Byers, to the conference of the Girls' Schools Association was so cunning. He was clear that killing the independent schools was off the agenda, thus comforting the people who pay; but he also made it clear with carrot and implied stick that they would have to share, or else the ``leave-'em- alone'' policy might have to be revised.

Suggestions that private hospital facilities will also have to play their part in meeting the beds crisis in the NHS reinforce the suspicion that the public-private partnership which ministers talk about involves more than handing public resources to private shareholders.

Here, perhaps, is one of the building blocks of Blair's "third way". Those with money may well be allowed to retain the privileges that money can buy; but where these involve using public goods - land, culture, information, there's no exclusive lease. We middle classes may not pay extra taxes, but we are going to have to find ways of sharing our good fortune with everyone else; we can have our cake, and we can eat it - but we've had a clear warning that there will be new diners at the table and that we shall have to provide for them.