Schools, fools and Rod Stewart

My modest proposal to undermine public schools

If St Augustine had a vision of God, perhaps it was not unlike Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charities Commission. She will make the fee-charging schools good but, as Augustine's prayer demanded, not just yet. They have, she says, five years to meet the requirements of the Charities Act 2006 and prove their entitlement to charitable status, with its attendant tax concessions. Since, by 2014, a Tory government is likely to have amended the legislation, that seems to be that for this latest attempt to end what amounts to a subsidy.

But the only good thing about what Leather originally proposed is that the schools got in such a lather about it. She pressed them to increase the number of means-tested bursaries for very bright children. The schools didn't like it because it involved putting up fees so that rich parents subsidised oiks, which isn't exactly what parents have in mind when they opt for private education. We lefties didn't like it either, because it involved creaming off clever children from comprehensives, where their presence is essential to raise standards.

I therefore put forward once more my own scheme to undermine the public schools, which I first proposed in this magazine ten years ago. Guarantee, to every school and college, that a fixed proportion of its 18-year-olds (the top 2 per cent, say) gets places at the elite universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Imperial College London and so on. I may be a loony lefty, but this can't be a loony left scheme because a version of it has been adopted by some US states, such as Texas and California. Another version, albeit watered down, is supported by that admirable educational charity, the Sutton Trust, which is run by a millionaire.

Imagine if Eton, Westminster and St Paul's were limited to one or two places each annually at Oxford and Cambridge. Upper-middle-class parents, instead of paying out tens of thousands in school fees, would clamour for inner-city comprehensives where, they would calculate, their offspring could easily outperform the local proles. If school places were distributed according to neighbourhood, wealthy parents would also rush to buy homes in deprived areas, thus transforming the housing market as well as education. They would still pay out lavishly for private tuition and their children would still grab disproportionate numbers of elite university places, but at least the old pupils' networks would be broken.

Prize idiots

The Nobel Peace Prize committee, which has made a premature award to President Barack Obama, has a poor record of spotting winners. Between the world wars, it made three separate awards to negotiators of the Locarno Treaties - under which the major European powers, including Britain, France, Germany and Italy, pledged not to attack each other - and two to the negotiators of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, under which some 50 nations renounced war, including the United States, which still has it on the federal law book.

It also gave the prize to the British Labour politician Arthur Henderson for his achievements at the World Disarmament Conference of 1932-34, which was immediately followed by urgent rearmament across Europe. This proves it is foolish to hand out prizes for striving towards abstract goals such as "peace". At least the Roman Catholic Church, before it awards a sainthood, spends years establishing, to its own satisfaction if nobody else's, that miracles have occurred.

The war awards

If there were a Nobel War Prize, Tony Blair would surely be a leading contender. After all, he launched more wars than his buddy George W Bush. But he would fail an important test: he did not persuade (or, I think, try to persuade) his two sons, aged 19 and 17 when the Iraq invasion began, to join up. Was this what the Archbishop of Canterbury meant when he referred, at the service in St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the war dead, to "letting others rather than oneself carry the cost"? Rowan Williams's prose is so elliptical that it is hard to tell, but I think the dead soldier's father who refused to shake Blair's hand would endorse the sentiment.

Last orders?

Pubs, we are told, are closing at the rate of 50 a week. If so, I calculate the last pub will serve its last pint in 2031. I have frequently lamented the decline of English pubs and we have all seen boarded-up examples, particularly in country villages. But is it really so bad? A friend suggested the other day that the figures may be manipulated by the brewers and pubcos. And now I think about it, I have nine thriving pubs within easy reach - 15 minutes' walk at most - of my home in an unexceptional Essex suburb. When I moved to the area 28 years ago, there were 11, of which two are now bars and a third a pizza restaurant, while one new pub has opened.

Is it possible we are being misled? The government should launch an inquiry. If the figures are correct, it should take immediate action. If not, we can assume that the highly effective lobby that used to be known as the beerage is up to its old tricks.

Face the music

When David Cameron told the Conservative party conference that "there are reasons to believe", was he inspired by the Rod Stewart song? The lyric includes the following:

If I listened long enough to you
I'd find a way to believe that it's all true
Knowing that you lied straight-faced . . .
Still I look to find a reason to believe.
Which seems to sum up perfectly the country's mood about Cameron.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England