Their backgrounds say it all

Education - the decision-makers

Tony Blair's trust schools will control their own assets, determine their own ethos, shape their own curriculum and set their own admissions criteria (within limits). Their governing bodies may be dominated by external forces - for example, businesses, charities or religious organisations - and they will compete with other schools for pupils. In short, trust schools will be very like public schools. Given the close resemblance, it is not such a surprise that William Hulme's Grammar School in Manchester has decided to shift to the state sector, abolishing fees in exchange for public funding as a city academy. So impressed by the education white paper was the school's headteacher, Stephen Patriarca, that he "wrote to the DfES to say that it was an enlightened document that was taking education forward, because it enhanced the move towards the privatisation of education. If the trust schools go ahead we are talking about wholesale privatisation, and in my view this is a good thing."

But why exactly are education's leading decision-makers intent on replicating private schools in the public sector? The unity between the Labour and Conservative front benches on this issue has been much more commented on than explained. An investigation of the frontbenchers' school backgrounds reveals an awful lot. Tony Blair went to Fettes, Ruth Kelly went to Sutton High and Westminster, and Andrew Adonis went to Kingham Hill (on a scholarship); David Cameron went to Eton. Every single one of them went to public school. What's more, they all went on to the same university: Oxford.

As the table (right) shows, the closer you are to the Prime Minister, the more likely it is that you went to public school. It would seem the decision-makers want state schools to be governed more like the schools they attended themselves. The question for the rest of us is whether changing the way schools are managed has any bearing on the quality of education. Sadly, all the tinkering with structures to date has not substantially altered Britain's divided society. Despite the expansion in places over the past two decades, the proportion of people from the poorest 20 per cent of society going to university has increased from 6 per cent to just 9 per cent; the proportion from the wealthiest 20 per cent, meanwhile, has increased from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.

These statistics are at the root of opposition to the Education Bill. We inhabit a deeply unequal society. It is Labour's historic mission to tackle this, and one of the main instruments in this mission has always been education. The bill, with its emphasis on choice and governance structures, will only widen inequalities.

The truth is that Blair, Kelly et al are stealing the wrong idea from their public-school experience. What they should be seeking to replicate in the most deprived areas is the pupil-teacher ratios found in the private sector, which have been shown to be crucial in driving up standards. The ratio for secondary schools stands stubbornly at 16.2:1 - the same as Labour inherited in 1997 from the Conservative governments before it. By contrast, the pupil-teacher ratio for public schools stands at less than 10:1.

The academic success of public schools is not down to their independence from the state sector; they do well because they are better-funded and can afford more teachers. Taking this example from public schools would require a significant redistribution of funds to the poorer sections of society, and put some much-needed clear blue water between Labour and the Tories.

Jon Trickett is Labour MP for Hemsworth

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