Does skool suck?

Billy Bragg In 1969, I failed my eleven-plus. From that moment on, no one mentioned the word university to me, and I don't recall any of my classmates going on to study for a degree. That I succeeded against the odds doesn't excuse that waste of potential.

Will Self I was educated privately until my mother's politics - she was on the Committee for the Advancement of State Education - got the better of her. I was then sent to a grammar, which turned comprehensive. It was a bog-standard education - the breaks I had really came from my academic parents. My older children have gone to Catholic state schools; the youngest are in a non-faith primary. The Catholic schools are a case apart; the local primary is good, inclusive and happy. As a resident of Lambeth in south London, however, the future does not look educationally inviting. The obsession with "parent choice" is just another facet of the relentless importation of the market ethos into public services. Education has always been an arena where social engineering has been practised: the comprehensive movement of the 1960s and 1970s was part of a tendency towards social levelling; the philosophy of "choice" is part of the Thatcherite ideal - namely that everyone should become either Alderman Roberts or a member of the lumpen proletariat. The challenge is to develop state education as inclusive and protean, not a prescriptive negative-feedback loop into existing inequalities.

Joan Bakewell The picture is patchy. The middle classes are taking care of themselves and sod the rest. But it's the rest we should worry about. Teaching is producing box-ticking robots who learn the received wisdom of the day rather than to question and explore with open minds. Where will the next generation of free-thinking scholars come from? I think faith schools will prove a mistake, encouraging divisions. There are some wonderful teachers, but they need support in their efforts to inspire. Education should be about more than getting a job. Where has the joy of learning gone?

Anthony Minghella I remember asking for a reference from my head of house and being told that I was the least co-operative student in the history of the school.

Benjamin Zephaniah My first memory of school was of me and my sister being the only black kids there. My sister used to cry her eyes out. When other kids weren't taunting me into a fight, I would be left on my own in the corner of the playground. I was kicked out at the age of 13 - a bit like Ray in my novel Gangsta Rap (Bloomsbury) - and my education has come mainly from debating with others. My two big concerns are race and dyslexia. Things are better these days, but so much is dependent on individual teachers. If one dedicated teacher leaves, it can all fall apart. Teachers deserve more respect. In some countries they are treated like prophets. There's so much talk about levelling out, but it's nonsense. The government shouldn't be focusing on making good schools even better: it should be investing properly in the poor ones.

Fiona Millar I was educated in inner London and remember clearly the "us and them" situation. I didn't want that for my own children. Living in the same area today we are lucky, but elsewhere school systems are still disfigured by overt and covert selection. Trust schools will undoubtedly make these hierarchies even worse.

Ian Rankin Scottish education suffered in the 1970s, when I was at high school, from a tendency to try to stuff the learners' heads with facts, Gradgrind-style, to be spewed out in exams. At university I felt ill-prepared to deal with the chatty southerners because I'd not been taught how to think for myself. The real plus about my schooldays was that many of my teachers were passionate about the job. They tended to have gone to the same school they taught at, and so had strong ties to the community. Discipline didn't seem the problem it now is, and most of the kids wanted to learn. There's a greater sense of apathy these days. Kids need to be enthused - and this is as much in the gift of the parents as it is in the gift of the teachers.

June Sarpong The school I went to in east London is known for its wide ethnic and social mix, which is perhaps what encouraged my fascination with people and different cultures. I believe schooling isn't just about academics. We need to encourage young children to believe in themselves more. That's more often done in private education, but I think it could be applied better at street level.

Paul Gambaccini I very much believe in the "key teacher" theory of education. My third-grade teacher made me more aware of my potential than any authority figure I had encountered before. I owe my career to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, which had America's largest radio station run by students. It prepared me for my Radio 1 audition. That's one reason I serve as a trustee of the EMI Music Sound Foundation: talented people who love music should have the chance to learn it, in practice as well as in theory.

Ian McKellen I had a blissfully happy time at school. I know it's unfashionable to say that, but I did. These days, I guess it makes all the difference whether you go to a comprehensive school or a public school. Not sure which way, though!

Ann Widdecombe I went to a convent boarding school. It was very strict but I was extremely happy. I've no doubt that it helped me get where I am today, academically and in terms of work ethic. I still believe grammar schools are the best model we have, and do not oppose trust schools. The most important thing now is rigour, because with the decline of literacy and numeracy even the best curriculum in the world won't help.

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