Schooled in hypocrisy

While the left dodges the quality issue, the right takes a grand moral stand on the lie of choice. George Walden offers some truly radical advice on e ducational reform
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The latest debate about public schools is characterised, as usual, by hypocrisy and evasion. The left dodge the issue of quality, more concerned with finding ways to punish "elite" institutions financially. The right take a grand moral stand on t he great lie of choice. You cannot expect much from a debate where no one tells the truth; the truth being that if you want good education in Britain you buy it, though not everyone has the cash.

Assuming you choose the right school (yes, there are bad private schools) for your money you get grammar, Latin, smaller classes, better facilities, better teachers, more discipline, higher aspirations and, above all, a haven from crabbed little egalitarian notions as antiquated as Clause IV. And whether the private-school child is bright or a dumbo, he or she buys a certain self-confidence, much treasured in a socially sensitive, anti-intellectual society. Tony Blair, a clever and self-assured politician, would almost certainly not be leader of the Labour Party if he had not been to private school, because he would be less clever and less self-assured.

It is hardly surprising that parents with the money get out of the state system. Hypocrisy being the name of the British educational game, like Mr Blair with his grant-maintained school, they have to come up with a plausible excuse. Normally it is the lie about choice (try educating your children at private school if you are on £15,000 a year); or it is that peculiarly nauseous cant about how "comprehensives are marvellous, just not for our child".

The hypocrisy is endemic because educational apartheid is a British disease. It persists because it suits the left and the right. The left's agenda on schools being more social than educational, they thrive on resentment of privilege, while the right find it convenient to protect their children from the competition that they would be exposed to if we had a truly meritocratic system. Would roughly 50 per cent of the Oxbridge intake still come from private schools - bearing in mind that they represent 7 per cent of pupils?

So left and right have combined to preserve a fossilised system in which the richest and most influential 7 per cent have no personal interest in the good performance of the state sector of education. Rather the contrary, in terms of passing on privilegefrom one generation to another. Naturally, whether as TV journalists, judges, politicians or businessmen, they promenade their consciences from time to time to keep the "feel good" flame burning. What no one really wants is change. Here, as in so many respects, we live in a blocked society.

No country can have a good state system while its governing classes have no direct interest in or experience of it. To that extent, though it can be improved, the British system is doomed to mediocrity. It is a typically British piece of warm-hearted evasion to say that the solution is to bring state schools up to private standards so that "no one will need to go private". For that you would have to change an entire philosophy of low aspirations in the state sector, and for busy professional people life is too short.

With the best will in the world, once you confront the educational facts of the case rather than bleat on about choice or the class system, change is difficult. You cannot (legally) and should not (morally) destroy what are often first-rate educational institutions.

There is only one solution that I can see: make the best available to everyone. It cannot be done by compulsion, so it must be done voluntarily. If the state were to offer to finance public schools, interesting things might happen. At present it is technically feasible for a private school to go grant-maintained, though almost none of them have. The balance of advantage clearly is not attractive enough. Yet if you were to offer, not just the standard rate of finance but what it costs to run an elite (yes, elite) institution, and find ways to guarantee their autonomy, you might get more interest.

The quid pro quo would, of course, be the opening of private schools to all the talents on the basis of selective examination, as happens every day in our universities. The scions of well-to-do families would not be able to get in automatically, which might encourage their parents to take a closer interest in what happens in the state sector.

Stripped of their upper-class dross, such schools would be academically superior to present private schools. That in itself would tend to drive the fee-paying parents of bright children away from them towards the new, free, high-quality schools. The private sector would then be opened to serious competition which the failures of the state system have spared it.

The cost of offering to buy out private schools would be considerable. In terms of dragging Britain into the 20th century before it expires, the educational and social benefits would be colossal. The Treasury would object that there would be a huge "deadweight" cost, as bright fee-paying children got their education at the taxpayers' expense. One could argue that they would have earned it, though in equity it might be necessary to charge a level of fee to those able to pay, as is already done, indirectly, in the university maintenance grants system.

Why should any private school join such a system voluntarily? To begin with, few of them would. But if some of the old direct grant schools, such as Manchester Grammar, were lured back into the state sector where they belong, the competition the private schools would face might have a domino effect over time.

The forces of dynamic inertia, which is to say self-gratifying huffing and puffing while avoiding the search for solutions, is nowhere stronger in Britain than in education. Objections will come from both sides of the public school debate, now as traditional as the schools themselves. Both "anti-elitists" and the people who like to think they are that elite will be shocked by the notion that clever, hard-working children from whatever background should go to the country's best schools. If they combine again to block progress, we shall all be the losers.

The author is Conservative MP for Buckingham and was an education minister, 1985-87.