Class, and particularly educational background, has become a sticking issue in this election. (Photo: Steve Cotton)

The most hotly contested election of the millennium is now only a couple of policy-scrutinising weeks away. Gord, Dave and Nick are primed, scrubbed and ready to bombard us with the best punchlines, soundbites and promises their speech writers can muster. ‘The Recovery’ from the recession and the need for ‘Change’ have quickly entered every day language. ‘Making Britain fairer’ is an aim all the parties claim to have. Despite the many strategies designed to help ensure this increase in ‘fairness’ none of the Big Three have broached what surely must be the single biggest obstacle preventing equality – the ancient British public school system.

Now. This is a touchy subject. It’s touchy for parents who send their children to fee-paying schools and don’t want to be told that they can’t spend their money however they wish, and it’s touchy for those who have been through the private system and don’t want to be made to feel guilty about their GCSE and A-Level results, or indeed any future achievement. Which is fair enough. Those good grades, however, were gained in gleaming, state-of-the-art classrooms with half the number of students you would share learning time with at a state comprehensive. This is not to mention the plethora of extracurricular activities (the theatre trips, sporting facilities, musical instrument lessons) that turn an exemplary academic pupil into a well-rounded candidate for Oxbridge. This is of course an ideal situation that everyone, certainly all parents, would wish for their child. If we agree that intelligence is dispersed equally throughout the population and that smaller and less disruptive classes produce better results then it becomes clear that parents are, in effect, buying their children’s grades, and so university places, and so futures. Any kind of society where this system operates can never be equal, let alone fair.

If private or ‘independent’ (as they have been cleverly re-branded) schools were abolished tomorrow the standard of teaching and thus learning would drop instantly and forever, or so say promoters of the private system. They are almost certainly right. What cannot be argued against however, is that a complete overhaul of the education system – where all schools admitted all pupils regardless of economic background – would make it fairer for everyone. Those pupils who would normally attend the privileged Etons, Harrows and Haberdashers’ Aske’s would of course receive a worst academic education, at least initially. However, the influx of pupils from wealthy upper and middle-class backgrounds would undoubtedly raise the overall academic level of the state system as well as allowing different portions of Britain to mix, perhaps for the first time, and definitely for the good of an increasingly fragmented society.

As usual, statistics make for interesting – if shocking – reading. Despite only 7% of the school population going private, Oxford University’s private school intake in 2006 was 43.4% and Cambridge’s 38%. More alarmingly perhaps, a 2003 survey found that 84% of senior Judges in England and Wales were products of Independent schools. Of the three leading political party leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg went private (to Eton College and Westminster School respectively), with only Gordon Brown representing the 93% pupils in the UK who are state educated. Any other equality proposals are surely paltry when the underlying system of the education lottery, that keeps the poor poor and the rich rich, remains. Until the day comes (if it’s ever allowed to come) when the last great bastion of British elitism is abolished, universities, employers and everyone else would do well to remember that an A from a gang-ridden comp beats an Eton A* any day.

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  1. I’m not sure how much difference having pupils from upper and middle class backgrounds in their classroom is going to make to children in the more challenging comprehensives. What would make more of a difference is smaller classes, better targeting funding and increased discipline.

    What also needs to me acknowledged is the gap between state schools in leafy middle class Britain (which, to be fair, most Sussex students went to) and state schools in our inner cities. I live in a working class area of London and most of my friends live in East London.

    I know parents in Tower Hamlets who are saving and saving and saving to send their children private because of problems with the local state schools. I’d like to suggest that the author of this piece and people who agree that private schools are the main issue in education spend some time in inner city comprehensives and consider whether they still hold this view.

    Also, don’t forget it’ll cost a lot of public money to put 7% of Britain’s children into the taxpayer-funded state system.

    Oh,and politicans like Tony Benn and Clement Attlee went to public school as well as politicans such as David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Margarent Thatcher and John Major, who I’m sure you’re not a fan off, were educated in the state sector

  2. Hey Richard,

    Firstly, thanks for commenting!
    I’m not really sure what you mean when you say “I’d like to suggest that the author of this piece and people who agree that private schools are the main issue in education spend some time in inner city comprehensives and consider whether they still hold this view.” I don’t think private schools are the main issue. The main issue is that the state school system is chronically underfunded. How can they compete for the best teachers when public schools can pay double the salary?
    To me the old grammar school model seemed to make sense, obviously we couldn’t simply readopt the system because so many more people go to university.
    The fact that famous left wing and right wing politicians went/go to public and state schools is neither here nor there. My point wasn’t that public schools in themselves breed a kind of conservatism but that they are on the whole better schools and that the fact that entry into better schools is not based on intelligence seems fundamentally unfair.
    I went to a comprehensive in North London where half of the pupils got 5 A-C grades at GCSE. I would have loved to have gone somewhere with amazing facilities and tiny classes.
    An extra note: my school was in the very bottom of Barnet borough and so actually received less funding than official ‘inner city’ schools because it geographically wasn’t central enough – poverty and deprivation does exist in ‘leafy’ areas too.
    As to how to fund a state system without having a private school sector, I haven’t worked that out yet! But I’m working on it!

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