`The sort of education I had may not survive ... '

Andreas Whittam Smith on brick-clad schooling

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I had a good education but not one that could be described as elitist in a social sense. It wasn't Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, nor Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. But while there is no threat to the continued existence of the top public schools nor to the richer colleges of Oxbridge, the sort of education I had may not survive -at least not without strenuous action by those who believe in it.

I went to Birkenhead School in the 1940s and 1950s. It was what was known as a direct grant school. The majority of parents paid modest fees but the Labour and Conservative governments of the time made available sufficient state aid to such schools to allow them to provide hundreds of free places for boys from poor households who could pass the entrance examination. Perhaps technically Birkenhead was a public school, in the sense that its headmaster was and is a member of the Headmasters' Conference. It also took in a small number of boarders, but that reflected the domination by shipping of the Merseyside economy; inevitably some parents found themselves working abroad. But there was nothing pukka about the school; the social mix stretched from dockers' sons to doctors' sons.

Until now, it has largely preserved that character, though differently. Shipbuilding has disappeared from Birkenhead and shipping is a much reduced activity. Fewer pupils come from the grim streets where I was brought up; my father was the vicar of a parish in the town. Instead the catchment area has widened out to include the whole of the Wirral, with its golf courses and commuter villages. Yet a quarter of its roll-call still comprises boys from families who are unable to find the fees in whole or in part.

This is because Birkenhead School has been benefiting from the Assisted Places Scheme introduced by Mrs Thatcher in 1981. In England and Wales there are about 30,000 children in the scheme. Four out of 10 of these enjoy a totally free education because their parents' income is below pounds 10,000 a year. They do better at GCSE and at A-level than their peers in state schools. But the new Government is phasing out the scheme in order to provide extra funds for reducing class sizes in primary schools.

As a result, 300 schools like Birkenhead face a future in which they will no longer be able to admit all-comers who can pass their entrance examinations, regardless of parents' income. This is the fate awaiting a small but valuable part of the educational system unless the schools concerned can replace the government funding. The Assisted Places Scheme is worth a lot of money each year to Birkenhead. In fact the school is determined to avoid an outcome in which its traditional social mix is extinguished and it moves up market, so that it becomes a school exclusively for the well-heeled middle classes of the area. It is appealing locally for funding to allow it to continue offering free places. Those of us who have been educated there, or live in or near Birkenhead, or run businesses there will have to rally round.

Likewise a call will also surely soon come from my Oxford college, Keble, where I went after doing National Service. Keble College is similar to Birkenhead School in being independent but not socially elite. The two institutions even share the same brick-clad, Gothic architecture of the late Victorian period, though Keble's is much the finer.

Keble was founded towards the end of the 19th century as a memorial to John Keble, poet, country clergyman, leader of the Catholic reform movement within the Church of England. When I was there, in the late 1950s, the Warden was still invariably a clergyman, though now, I am glad to say, it is one of the few Oxford colleges to be led by a woman, Professor Averil Cameron. From the beginning Keble College rejected any notion of social exclusiveness for it was set up specifically for "gentlemen wishing to live economically". It has never been remotely grand. Not all Oxbridge colleges are old and rich and exclusive.

The problem for Keble is that the Government is discussing whether to remove the additional pounds 2,000 fee per student that the state pays to colleges to support the tutorial system, in effect one-to-one teaching. The financial consequences would be dire and are remarkably similar to the effect of the removal of the Assisted Places Scheme on Birkenhead School - Keble would lose 25 per cent of its annual income of some pounds 4m. Many other colleges at Oxbridge, apart from those whose benefactors in an earlier age handsomely endowed them, confront the same problem.

What is at risk is a form of education, in a sense a hybrid, that provides the same excellent teaching as the great public schools and ancient universities but without social exclusiveness. I think it is the best education you can get. But because the hybrid system has never had a name, because it has always been subsumed into something else, it has never been recognised for what it is. As a result this sector, really a way of education, is politically defenceless, though three recent prime ministers were more or less typical products - Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher.

The only way the hybrid system can be saved is by raising from private sources the substantial financial support that the Government removes. The schools and Oxbridge colleges concerned are used to raising charitable funds, but now their targets will have to be set much higher. At least they have a very good case to make.

I hope, however, they will avoid talking in terms of scholarships or bursaries. In the past scholarships were used to allow exceptionally clever youngsters to attend famous educational establishments. Both Keynes and Orwell were Eton scholars. The word "bursary", too, has a rather condescending feel to it. No, "free places" is the right description. Being open to all-comers of sufficient ability is the aim. It is an approach to education that deserves a long life.

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