Andrew Neil’s BBC film about how politics in Britain has increasingly become a preserve of privately-educated privileged examined a real and important phenomenon. He argued that for a brief period front-line Westminster politics, and hence government, had been opened up to a meritocracy drawing on a much wider range of social backgrounds, but now the ranks were closing again. Apart from a sidewsipe at the Unions for failing to represent their members (an ironic comment from a Murdoch journalist), his solution lay in bringing back grammar schools. While he re-iterated that nobody would want a return to the old secondary moderns, in which 80% of children were condemned to explicitly second-class institutions at the age of 11, selective secondary education was the key.
In my view his analysis was weak and tendentious. For example, he did not ask the question of how the narrowing social base of Parliament might reflect the fact that the three main Parliamentary parties have adopted an increasingly convergent political agenda, a set of variations on free-market economics which serves the interests of an affluent elite. He did not consider how far the rise of what he calls the “meritocracy” – epitomised by politicians like Wilson and Heath – was the result of the Second World War, in which the imperatives of national survival meant that bright grammar-school boys rose through the officer ranks.
In some respects he was just plain wrong. For example, he suggested that the public schools had tightened their grip on Oxbridge in recent years – but the proportion of state-school entrants has not changed in thirty years. Not good enough, but not what Neil argued. And in repeating the clichés about state education and the lack of aspiration, he failed to mention the fact that many state schools in affluent areas are giving private schools a run for their money. He simply didn’t seem to understand what a comprehensive school was or what it was for. He had no understanding of how widening economic inequalities have affected aspiration. And overall he seems chillingly indifferent to the fate of those who are not among the higher achievers at school.
And there was a clear absence of economics in his argument – he didn’t mention the huge financial advantages that private schools enjoy, and the fact that, through charitable status and VAT exemption, they are awash with public subsidy. He could and should have made the point that it costs the taxpayer more to subsidise a place at Eton than it does to fund a child at a state secondary.
Here then are two key questions about dealing with inequality that Neil didn’t address:
- Resources – one very simple and obvious point about private schools is that they are awash with money, much of it handed over by the taxpayer. A radical approach to inequality would start with the abolition of charitable status and private schools’ tax breaks. But it would need to go further, because children from affluent, achieving homes will always have an advantage (if there was one motto that might have underpinned Neil’s programme, it was Ivan Illich’s statement that education rationalised the head start as achievement). State education must be properly financed, and Tory-Dem ministers need to start thinking of state education as an investment, not a drain on public finances. It’s much more important than the ideological tinkerings with the syllabus that appear to obsess Gove.
- Institutional questions – Neil doesn’t explain why academic excellence requires the removal of the brightest children into separate institutions – the most successful comprehensives show that this need not be the case. And to the extent that academic qualifications matter (there’s a separate debate about whether the traditional academic syllabus should dominate education) I’d argue that what is needed is a re-examination of the question of exams. There’s no doubt that public exams have got easier, to the point where enormous numbers of candidates are getting the top grades. While this might once have been egalitarian, it’s now seriously disadvantaging those from poorer and more difficult backgrounds; faced with being able to fill their places many times over with students with top grades, the so-called elite Universities will fall back on the other factors in which the confident and well-prepared will excel, especially when their own resources are under pressure. There’s a paradox in education that needs to be resolved – pupils are facing more pressure than ever before in a race for degraded qualifications. I’d suggest that breaking out of that bind is essential to opening up higher education and making the whole business of educational attainment fairer. Paradoxically, more rigorous public examinations may be the key to doing that.
In conclusion, Neil identifies a real problem, and one that needs radical solutions that extend much more widely through social and political discourse. But by adopting an essentially conservative solution, shot through with nostalgia with a system that only worked for a few, he’s missing the point.