I’ve been reading with some interest the recent claims that state schools are failing pupils applying for top universities – and the associated claims that Oxbridge is taking state school pupils in significant numbers. It seems to me that there are a number of points worth exploring here.
Top of any pious hope league is the suggestion by Education Minister Bill Rammell, who argues that state schools need to push their pupils more and to coach them properly. Rammell’s comments are, of course, unaccompanied by any thoughts on resources. There’s nothing about matching the tens of thousands of pounds per annum that rich parents pay to buy the near-personal tuition of A-level students in the private sector, and of course there’s New Labour’s traditional silence on the vast sums of public money being pumped into the private school trough through charitable status and VAT exemption; and nothing about the fact that these children come from homes where they are strongly (if occasionally somewhat misguidedly) motivated and economically advantaged.
It’s the same old lie that unites New Labour and the tabloid press – where one section of society does better than another because it enjoys huge advantages, blame the disadvantaged for being losers.
But Rammell’s comments look quite rational compared with those of Chief Executive of the Independent Schools’ Council, Chris Parry, as reported in the Daily Telegraph. School bullies from disadvantaged backgrounds were running riot in state schools, denying the studious the opportunity to gain their Oxbridge prize. Now you don’t need a public school and Oxbridge education to realise that this article is a shameless sales pitch – an evidence-free rant designed to play on the fears of the middle classes. I’m not going to dismiss school bullying, because I’ve been there (except that the bullying I experienced was in an elite prep school, but that’s another story) and I’m certainly not going to deny that we live in a profoundly anti-intellectual culture in Britain. And, yes, the public schools and even Oxbridge are implicated in that too.
The day when I for one will take any comment from the private school sector about social deprivation seriously is when I see some evidence that this sector has any experience in dealing with it. State education has to cater for everyone; private schools, awash with public subsidy through charitable status, can quietly remove anyone whose face doesn’t fit. I used to be a primary school governor; I remember time and time again that our school had to deal with children who had been thrown out of private schools, often with very minor learning difficulties that a competent teacher could have spotted and remedied; but teachers in private schools simply weren’t good enough to spot the problem and by the time they came to us, the children had fallen further and further behind and had had their confidence destroyed by the hothouse atmosphere in the school. Motes and beams, Rear-Admiral Parry.
A corrective to the Rear-Admiral’s poisonous sales pitch might be this article by Jenni Russell in today’s Guardian, which points to some of the realities of the widening social gaps in New Labour’s Britain. The fact is that the real failure, after eleven years of Labour government, is that education in Britain is still fundamentally about class. When Bill Rammell and his ilk have the honesty – one might say the guts – to tackle that, things might just change.