And so it came to pass that Theresa May, a Conservative Prime Minister, managed to achieve what Labour leaders Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, nor indeed Tony Blair with his vision of Education cubed, had the bottle to do. Her Government sealed the fate of the divisive and damaging presence of the private school system in British society today. Well, maybe. But if May’s changes to the state schooling system go ahead, and there is no promise that they could happen, and indeed no consensus that they should happen, one of the astonishing side effects that will certainly happen will be the wholesale death of the private school.
Imagine. You are a middle class parent who, like your friends, never dreamed of sending your children to the local comprehensive. So you did as your peers do. A nice prep school nearby, then the famous public school up the road (or, if you are unlucky, the boarding school which is several hundred miles away, because that’s where you or your husband went).
You steady yourself for years of austere living, remortgaging the house and the rest, just so your sprogs can go to the nearest private enclave. “Oh, it’s a very normal place, scruffy even, just with academic excellence and small class sizes,” you say by way of humblebragging justification. But then, what’s this? The local comprehensive has the temerity to turn itself into a grammar school! With academic excellence, and small class sizes, and even a jolly difficult entrance exam, just like the one that St Wotsit has. Plus, because it benefited from the Building Schools for the Future programme, it has a new theatre. And fantastic labs. And a running track. At once, any wrinkles of doubt are erased from your mind. You can send your child to the local state school, because it has got rid of the dreaded word “comprehensive” and has introduced selection. Plus, your friends are doing the same thing.
Scale this up by fifty thousand children or so and bang! A fatal wound is inflicted on the private system. The smaller ones will close; the bigger ones with their special slang and show-off uniforms might carry on but only as the exclusive domain for the children of Russian oil barons and American bankers. A few mad British people, who think it might be quite fun for their kids to hang out with friends who have a security detail, will continue to patronise the world of the old school tie. But only a few.
Can you imagine the quivers of anxiety running through the wood-panelled staff rooms in places of monetary privilege across the UK? I would have thought that the forthcoming Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference will talk about little else. In North London I understand there are already posters on the Tube from private school cartels, who have joined up together to advertise Free Places for Bright Children. They seem to me as desperate as Ernest Shackleton’s famous advert in The Times looking for people to go with him to the South Pole. “Safe return doubtful.” Indeed, if this becomes law.
May has of course offered the grammar school notion to the private sector, but if they jump ship, their woes will only deepen. Because surely if private schools become state schools, they will have to change their name, uniform, and school song. They will have to stop spouting their “special” nature. All right, they can keep rowing – but the whole boastful network, wherein a spurious “heritage” has long been allowed to cast such a paralysing and debilitating spell over adult British life, will have had its legs cut off at the knees. Because saying “Of course I went to (insert name of ancient institution), but you know, the school which is now actually, ahem, South Avon Grammar,” or vice versa, just sounds absurd and renders the unhappy British penchant for employing people on the basis that they went to a famous school and might know someone else in the office who also went there, to sawdust.
I know that the whole grammar school debate is a ferociously nuanced one and many educational experts have warned against wholescale reintroduction of a selective system. But anyone who cares about education cannot overlook the fact that May’s idea could effectively kill off the single biggest blight on British children, namely the system of apartheid which currently exists between the moneyed and the state classroom.
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