Tag Archives: education

On Public Schools

I am a white, middle class, middle aged male who went to public school and I am in trouble again.

University College London has carried out a survey among 16-year-olds at independent schools and found they have higher levels of self-esteem than their counterparts in the state sector, and they are much more likely to believe they can get a job through their family or social contacts.

Some might find this blindingly obvious, and say, that is why parents send their sons and daughters to public school, to gain an advantage over state pupils. The whole topic is back in the news. My colleague Louise Cooper has written movingly about being humiliated, as a working class female seeking a job, by those same male, middle aged public school types.

The figures have been dragged out again, the number of judges, senior members of the armed forces, newspaper columnists and other influential voices that enjoyed a private education. She mentions them. Plainly, they operate a closed shop designed to keep the oiks away from the plum jobs and the corridors of power.

Might I suggest it is a little more complex than that?

Three points. One, those influential people are more likely to be from public schools because when they were being educated, decades ago, such schools offered a much better education than the state sector. My parents were from a working class background. They spent much of their money ensuring I got a better education than I would have at the comprehensive down the road, which was seriously awful.

It was awful because of the changes made to the education system, and the dumbing down of same, by politicians on the left who, the record shows, were themselves the product of a privileged education. Nothing like pulling the ladder up once you’ve got to the top, is there?

Second, I do not believe that those influential ex-public school types operate a deliberate exclusion policy today. We, and I am one of them even if I do not make such decisions, do not sit around in sniggering cabals saying, no, not that one, too common. Not that one, wrong skin colour. Not that one, a woman. Blimey, this one’s a woman, black and common. No chance.

They may once have done just that. The sort of posh bank where Louise Cooper was humiliated during her job interview (which you can read about here   http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-business/11984171/The-class-ceiling-is-worse-than-the-glass-ceiling-ever-was.html ) probably doesn’t exist any more, though. The City, the media and I suspect the law are much more meritocratic than they were. In the media, as I know, a degree of diversity is actually useful, allowing you to connect with a wider readership.

Third, all this is self-correcting in time. This may come as no comfort to those who think they are now suffering the stigma of a state education, but the independent sector, as a provider of the elite of the future, is withering. Fees are so high that it is no longer affordable for the sort of middle class parents who once sent their offspring there.

I could never afford to send my kids to my old school, and nor could my parents if they were bringing me up now. The headmaster of my school admitted recently that his job was mainly educating the offspring of oligarchs. The public school system looks increasingly like another source of UK invisible earnings.

Instead, the middle classes are having to use the state sector, and are demanding better standards, which can only lead to an improvement all around. And indeed, standards do seem to be improving at many state schools, though whether this is cause and effect it is probably too soon to tell.

Sancte et Sapienter, as my old school used to say. With holiness and wisdom.


On My Old School, And The Bullingdon Club

My old school, which I seem to recall in the 1960s and 1970s was a fairly relaxed affair, about as socially inclusive as a fee-paying institution could be, seems to have reinvented itself into an offshoot of the Bullingdon Club.

Fees are now so high that even the headmaster admits he is mainly educating the offspring of oligarchs from overseas. The place seems to have got the message and has stopped requesting cash from me, but I do still receive the newsletter.

This shows various rich-looking kids, often in dinner jackets, at social functions. ( I have a horrible suspicion that these are owned, not rented for the occasion. What sort of teenager owns a dinner jacket?)

One event was attended by the Master of one of the more obscure City livery companies, apparently an old boy, who peers owlishly out from the page. Who would have been lucky to have got out without being tarred and feathered by the Trots in my day. Elsewhere there is an account of a visit by some old boys to one of London’s two big auction houses, presumably to help them to flog off the family silver to afford the fees for their own offspring.

As is the practice in such publications, when a distinguished alumnus is mentioned, he is listed with the year that he left, as in “Basil Mountford-Fortescue, OB 1960”. I cannot help but notice that not one of those pictured dates from my era, say 1965 to 1975.

Oddly, given we were at one of the best educational institutions in the country at the time, almost none of my generation seem to have achieved any prominence since.

Just call us the lost generation.

On Elitism, And Educational Inequality

It seems we are a snobbish, class-ridden society where those of us with a tight hold on the reins of power will use our position to ensure no one from lower down the ladder is given the opportunities we enjoy. That position and those opportunities are entirely down to the schools and universities we attended; this explains why that amorphous mass, the Establishment, is still predominately the product of private education and good universities, including Oxbridge.

So says a commission that knows all about this sort of thing. As a white, middle class, male product of private education and a university, what can I do but hang my head in shame and admit my collusion in this shameful conspiracy?

Except that we are confusing two things here, elitism and educational inequality. I and others of my ilk do not sit around, as some ghastly secret elitist cabal, cackling evilly and saying, no, not that one for the job, he or she went to a bog standard comprehensive. Let’s keep the proles in their place.

Nor do top rank universities discriminate against pupils from the state sector with the same grades as someone from the private; actually, quite the opposite, faced with that choice, they will often go for the state pupil, for reasons of promoting social mobility.

I work in the world of business. This is these days viciously competitive; no sensible company would reject the best candidate for the job in favour of someone less talented because the latter went to the “right” school. Some employers might view the old school tie or who their parents may or may not be as more important than talent, but I suspect, from the evidence of my daily working life, they are now in a minority.

Look at the evidence. Someone who has gone through a good independent, fee-paying school – bad ones exist, believe me – and then to Oxbridge or another top rank university has had one of the best educations on the planet. Someone who has gone through certain sectors of our state system has had one of the worst educations in the developed world.

Which of the two would you expect to rise in professions such as law, journalism, accountancy, the City, even education itself, that require learning, diligence, social skills, and so on?

The solution is threefold. One is to assure that those state school pupils who demonstrate all the above have the chances to hook up with employers seeking such talent. Organisations such as the Social Mobility Foundation exist to do this and should be supported.

Another is to take a long, hard look at unpaid internships, which prevent those from a poor background getting a foot on the ladder and favour the offspring of the wealthy.

The last is to ensure that each state school pupil gets an education so good that the private sector withers away as not needed. This applies in more egalitarian societies, such as the Nordic countries, that put a premium on state education to an extent that private schools barely exist.

God knows how you do it. The most reforming education secretary in recent years, whose measure of success could be measured by the opprobrium with which he was held by the hidebound, ideologically motivated and lazy educational establishment, is no longer in the post. My old colleague Michael Gove.

There are signs of hope, not least in the performance of some academy schools. But the “elite” will be with us for a long time yet. As will studies proving how monstrously unfair it all is.

Middle Class Vested Interests

I worked with Michael Gove for some years and can confirm that he is a genuinely decent man, a politician who came into politics to make life better for his fellow citizens. Brought up in fairly modest circumstances, he gained a scholarship to go to a good school and his prime motivation is to ensure that as many pupils as possible today get the best possible education.

My teenage daughter went to 6th form college, where it is fair to assume she absorbed the demonisation of Gove by the staff there and others of the educational establishment, that amorphous mass of naysayers and foot-draggers that he himself calls The Blob. She genuinely seems to think he has a personal animosity towards the young, all of them. Teenagers are prone to silly ideas.

Gove is up against that constant of the advantaged professional classes the Middle Class Vested Interest. The same is true of those who have tried to reform the NHS or other parts of the health establishment.

They have an inbuilt advantage, these MCVIs. They are articulate, and present well on the Today Programme, where half a dozen of them – that soft-voiced Scotsman who used to speak for the BMA, the woman from the NUT – have become fixtures, on speed-dial on the producers’ mobiles.

What they have in common, aside from that voice of sweet reasonableness, is the determination that the people they represent do not want change, that the practices enshrined in their professional codes of conduct must never be amended and that those privileges their members enjoy are not to be eroded in any way. No matter that it might be to the benefit of the people they are pledged to teach, or treat, or serve. And that the money is always there, somewhere, to support the status quo.

They are no different from any other  knuckle-dragging trade unionist, but that articulacy and voice of sweet reason is very difficult to combat, as Gove has found out. The one vested interest that Mrs Thatcher never dared take on was the law, although some of the lawyers’ privileges are now being eroded by market forces and the arrival of competition from outside the profession.

And which profession is disproportionately represented in Parliament? Indeed. Funny, that.

(Disclaimer – my daughter, who designed this website, is actually incredibly intelligent and I’m lucky to have her around. Her opinions are her own, as mine are.)

On Academe

I was sitting next to a senior academic at dinner the other day.  He made three interesting points.

One, that the coming of tuition fees was pushing our universities further towards the US model. There, at Ivy League colleges, say, the most promising students get bursaries and don’t pay fees. All the others, those that are good enough to get in and well off enough to afford the fees, are subsidising those high achievers.

This sounds to me like a good solution, in terms of social mobility. It is certainly better than allowing the dim offspring of the rich to buy their way in, at the expense of the genuinely gifted.

Second, no one in academe can understand what the Government was doing when it set tuition fees at a maximum of £9,000. Here he echoed the views of an old City friend of mine, who is now serving on the advisory board at one of the Russell Group. Both said this. How much did the Government think we were going to charge, if offered a ceiling of £9,000?

Well, £9,000, as it turned out. Charge less, if you are a top ranking institution, and you are not only giving up possible income, you are saying implicitly that your course is not as good as, and so cheaper than, the equivalent at your peers elsewhere.

Third, UK universities have yet to grasp the opportunities offered by the Internet. This is a bit more abstruse. But it seems some of the lesser colleges, often former polytechnics, have evolved skills in one particular discipline. Bath is apparently very good at photography.

The technology exists to provide these specialist courses online, using the sort of social media sites employed by those massive online games which allow participants to communicate and co-operate, along with bulletin boards to do the same.

He envisaged it thus. A college offers a specialist course to thousands of students worldwide, who sign up for the first year at a relatively low cost. By the second, those that want to persevere and show some aptitude may actually take up residence at the college for the completion of their course. Those that drop out do not first take up rare places at the college, and nor do they have the expense of physically locating there.

I have no idea if this would work. But I am not a senior academic.

Education, education…

There was a profoundly silly woman on the radio the other day bemoaning the practice of the middle classes to pay for extra tuition for their children to get them through important exams. This is apparently a big issue in educational circles.

Pass over, for a second, the notion that they might be doing this because of the failure of those same experts to construct an educational system which provides sufficient learning in the classroom. The argument appears to be twofold.

One, children who are pushed into passing exams risk ending up in a school where they cannot cope, once deprived of that additional coaching, and therefore fail. Two, it is unfair on classmates whose parents are unable to afford such coaching.

As it happens, both my children have had additional coaching ahead of exams, purely to fill in gaps left in their learning, whether by inattention in class or poor teaching.

Let’s take each argument at a time. The first falls apart immediately. What it is saying is, children should not be pushed because they might subsequently fail. It removes, therefore, the possibility that they might subsequently succeed, and thrive. Better they fail now than take the chance of succeeding or failing later.

The second is more egalitarian. But parents work hard and try to get on because they want to do well by their children, perhaps giving them the advantages they did not themselves enjoy. They may choose to forego luxuries such as expensive holidays or consumer goods to prioritise their children’s education. Other parents might have other priorities. Who are you to decide what those priorities should be? And how are you going to police it?

To take this further, our house is stuffed full of books bought for our use. Some have gone with my daughter to college because they are useful in her studies. Should we be prevented from buying them, or allowing our children to use them, because other parents do not do so? And how are you going to police that?

Take it further again. I speak rather bad French. I know a fair bit about history and science. I am therefore able, to some extent, to help my children with their homework. Is this “unfair”, because other children’s parents are ignorant? And how are you going to police that?

Truly, education is too important to be left to educationalists.