Victor Cockerill offers some proposals for making state education in Britain better and fairer
AS THE warning lights of economic recession continue to flash, crime levels continue to shock and increasing numbers of ordinary working people heed the siren voices of the far right, many on the left need no persuading that the “new” Labour project has failed. We must accept that the Tories may well be back in power soon and look to what a more radical but realistic Labour Party should be offering the electorate after the inevitable failure of a period of “rule by public school”.
This Government’s inability to tackle educational reform in the fundamental way required is indicative of the failure of its overall approach: a doomed dalliance with consumer capitalism where superficiality is paramount and appearance is everything.
Despite some progress – albeit from a low level and after considerable expenditure – many state secondary schools still struggle to be no more than satisfactory and a significant minority of children leave school with no qualifications whatsoever. Moreover, state schools and their teachers suffer from repeated political interference and a poor public image.
The problem goes back to the 1960s and the introduction of comprehensive education, which was generally accepted as a good thing and presented the Labour Government of the time with a great opportunity to make positive and permanent changes in our inadequate and divided education system and our society as a whole. However, having abolished most of the grammar schools, Labour failed to do anything about abolishing or at least reforming the public or private sector schools.
Up until the ’60s, the intellectual abilities of the products of traditional middle and upper-class public schools were commonly viewed as something of a joke compared to the remarkable academic achievements and high status of many state grammar schools. For instance, Manchester Grammar School was widely acknowledged for its academic success which was reflected in Oxbridge entrance levels.
The after-effects of the grammar school closures were gradual and went unnoticed for some time. Private sector schools started to fill an academic vacuum that developed in the state sector. In particular, the top public schools changed their outlook and image to encompass academic excellence and achievement as well as exclusivity.
They have accomplished this with great success. The fact that half of David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet went to private schools – and predominantly to Eton – is not seen as a liability in terms of their ability to run the country.
Oxford and Cambridge now welcome around half of their intake from independent schools, even though most children in this country are not educated in the private sector.
Thus, there has been a great reinforcement of the power and status of the private (or so-called “public”) schools and those who attend them. This has been accompanied by a diminution in the general perception of state education, especially when newspaper headlines regularly record its failure and problems.
The top jobs in this country are disproportionately occupied by the products of public schools. But we tend not to mention this “elephant in the room”. In his Children’s Plan, Schools Secretary Ed Balls seeks to make Britain “the best place in the world to grow up”. But for the children of the rich and powerful, it already is. And their parents would like to keep it that way.
This Government has hailed a “new meritocracy”, but how can it be a true meritocracy when there is no level playing field in education? The rich have been and are increasingly able to buy superior private education for their children. The status and standards of the top public schools are getting higher. They have dominated the GCE, A-Level and university entrance tables for years. Meanwhile, the great mass of the population has had to accept at best a watering down of standards and status in the state system.
And so the ruling class gains in confidence and further entrenches its position, while ordinary people and their children are increasingly dissatisfied and dispirited. Social mobility is inhibited and the county continues to suffer from its failure to develop the potential of large numbers of talented but poorer children.
So how should a more visionary Labour government proceed with regard to education? There can be no return to socially divisive grammar schools and it would be widely regarded as unacceptable to ban private education or abolish existing public schools. However, the advantages that can be bought by a privileged minority are unjust, divisive and damaging to society.
One way forward would be for the top 30 or 40 public schools to be retained as they are (along with their prized names), but required to become wholly selective and largely state-funded while keeping their functional autonomy. In effect, they would become national centres of excellence for gifted and exceptional children for whom there is currently inadequate provision within the state system.
This transition would be very gradual. The top private schools and, if necessary, other independent ones would be offered the opportunity to participate in a great socially beneficial project or face sanctions which would begin with the withdrawal of their tax-beneficial charitable status. They would essentially be required to operate as public-private partnerships, with the state providing most of the fees and funding, as well as administering a standardised entry examination. Perhaps the former direct grant grammar schools could be a kind of model, since the new schools would effectively be national grammar schools.
There would be means-testing for state scholarships: nothing too stringent, but sufficient to ensure that the well-off paid their way. The proportion of fee payers – in other words, the rich – should eventually be limited to around 10 per cent of the annual intake of any one school.
Private schools generally would be encouraged to engage more positively with the community. Private boarding schools have been shown to be able to help boys and girls excluded from the state sector – which is unsurprising, given that many of these excluded children’s problems are caused by the situation at home. Perhaps more could be made of this; certainly private schools must do rather more than offer a few bursaries to the children of “distressed middle-class gentlefolk” in order to justify their estimated £100 million tax benefits.
So why not establish a tier of national schools for the gifted (NSGs) in place of the top independent schools, which would bring educational excellence and achievement into the public domain? These prestigious new schools would be accessible to all gifted children through selection and state scholarships. They would become institutions with which the whole nation could identify, as children from ordinary backgrounds benefited. Eventually, the result would be to give a much-needed boost to the image and status of state education, while eliminating a prime cause of private privilege and social division.
The adaptation of existing schools as facilities for gifted children would save a considerable amount of public expenditure. Other private schools would continue to progress and perform well, but in performance and perception they would trail the new national grammar schools. Eton College NSG and Westminster School NSG would rule.
The failure of the private sector to respond adequately to proposals of this kind would have to be countered by government action against it in the form of direct taxation in addition to the loss of private schools’ charitable status. In the national interest, the dominance of such a privileged minority while the majority is so neglected cannot be allowed to continue. The severe social divisions and other disastrous consequences of privilege and elitism, exclusion and deprivation are in the interests of no one.
Victor Cockerill is a writer and researcher and a former teacher and lecturer in primary, secondary and further education