The great divide

Michael McMahon on the true difference between state and private schools
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I HAD BEEN teaching for many years but I still hesitated before stepping into the classroom for my first lesson at my new school. All my experience had been in the independent sector. I was now in an urban comprehensive. I remember wondering whether the pupils would stand up and fall silent when I entered. Now, I blush to recall my naivety. I'd have done better to wonder not whether they'd stand up, but how I'd get them to sit down, shut up, or even stay in the room for the rest of the lesson. I had moved not just to a new school, but to a different world.

According to a survey published last week, more than half of today's parents would like their children to make a journey in the other direction - from state to private. The MORI poll, commissioned by the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS), also finds that 55 per cent of all parents "would send their children to independent schools if they could afford it." More surprisingly - or less, according to how cynical you are - 51 per cent of Labour-supporting parents would do the same.

These figures, though, are academic in more than one sense. Few of those questioned will ever be able to afford to pay school fees. The Government has just wound up the assisted places scheme that might have helped any of them to do so, though the survey suggests that 61 per cent of those who voted Labour wanted them to keep it.

For all the high hopes that this poll records, the reality is that only 7 per cent of our children actually go to private schools. When a boarding place at a public school can cost pounds 15,000 a year, this is hardly surprising. It is a figure greater than many people's salaries, and a huge sum for almost anybody to find out of taxed income. Not many of the 37 per cent who said that they wouldn't have their children educated privately even if they could afford it will ever have to put their principles to the test.

For private education is by definition exclusive. That is why so many object to it; and that is why it works. State schools have to accommodate all comers, including the wreckers. All too often, the progress of the many is hampered by the incorrigible behaviour of the few. But in independent schools, they are easily removed.

In my own previous incarnation as a prep school headmaster, I once made the mistake of accepting into the school a boy who by the end of his first week had shown himself to be so uncontrollably violent, abusive and disruptive that I called in the parents, and returned their cheque. My responsibility was for the welfare and progress of the whole community, and he was wrecking it.

Yet, since I have worked in the state system I have seen far worse behaviour that schools have no choice but to accommodate. The child who has been shouting obscene defiance into a teacher's face is back at school in a matter of days. Children who smash windows with flying kicks, set fire to wastepaper bins or repeatedly set off the fire alarms are sent home for a bit, but they soon re-appear in class.

It is not the schools' fault. Permanently excluding a child is a notoriously difficult business. The inspection system views exclusion figures negatively: high exclusion rates are seen as a sign of failure. If a head clocks up too many expulsions, he will have the inspectors on his back. Moreover, permanently excluding a child not only reduces the school's capitation income but can damage the school's standing in the league tables. If the pupil is in either year of the GCSE course, his lack of achievement is recorded as if he had been present and passed nothing. No wonder an increasing number of parents want out.

For some, of course, the attraction of independent schools is exclusivity of a different sort. If you are the sort of person who would rather, as Jilly Cooper observed, hear your child say "fuck" than "toilet", then you are not going to want him to rub shoulders with children who say both, call napkins "serviettes" and hold their knives as if they were pens. Across the south-west London of the Sloane Ranger diaspora, a whole archipelago of prep schools has recently sprung up, little islands of upper-middle class values where the purity of a family's vowel sounds can be preserved from generation to generation, and a passably good education received, too.

The uniforms are traditional, almost prep-school heritage: corduroy breeches, piped blazers, gingham dresses - and you might have to buy them at Peter Jones. Also, parents can be pretty sure that heads will be unshaven and bodies pierced only when inoculated. These schools are as much social safe-houses as places of learning.

Nor are things quite what you might expect in some of the more conventionally established independent schools. Just as not all state schools are bad (though you could be forgiven for thinking so, given how the Government refers relentlessly to their problems) not all private schools are good. The murky torch of Charles Dickens's Dotheboys Hall did not splutter out after it was handed on to the Llanabba Castle of Evelyn Waugh's Decline And Fall. Both schools, it will be remembered, were fictionalisations of real places, and some pretty dodgy independent schools still exist.

Yet, for all the interest in independent education that the ISIS survey has generated, the fact remains that most people will continue to send their children to state schools. What really concerns most parents is not the split between the state and the private sector, but the increasing gap between the state schools that flourish and those that founder. At one extreme there are the few surviving grammar schools, openly selecting pupils they judge capable of participating in their communities of learning. You will find them towards the top of the league tables. Your children can get into one if they are clever enough - and if you live in the right place. You might not have to pay fees, but you will have to pay a heavy premium to live in the school's catchment area. Last week, estate agents Knight Frank published a report on the influence of schools on house prices. A good one can push them up more than 10 per cent.

But most people have no more chance of sending their children to grammar schools than they have of getting them into Eton. Education for them will be at a comprehensive, founded on the principle that everybody should be given an equal chance, and that we should educate all of our children together. But while individual schools might be making a fist of it, the system itself is falling apart.

All those league tables and namings and shamings have simply caused the bright children of middle-class parents to gather in the better favoured and located schools, while the rest remain in what become, to all intents and purposes, secondary moderns. This may not be the openly selective process by which grammar schools operate, but selection it is.

It surely can't be long before our leaders admit to the significance of their policies, and that they believe the comprehensive experiment has run its course, and that yet another ideal has been sacrificed to the merciless god of the market. After all, its inspiration was as much political as educational, and policies change. Governments want to control education, because in doing so they influence not just the present, but the future. Those who created the comprehensive system saw a future in which people co-operate; those who control it today see a future in which people compete.

No wonder we're in such a pickle. True education isn't about control, or social engineering. It's about learning. If we all accepted that, the division between state and private schools would soon become a marginal issue. Countries such as Germany where everybody accepts this haven't wasted 30 years in divisive educational experiments and crises. They know that their system works, and they get on with the job. Their system is honestly selective. Here, egalitarian angst and intolerant liberalism have prevented us from grasping the nettle that for all its incidental unfairnesses, selective education works.