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.