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More should be done to dismantle British education’s Berlin Wall

Why is the left silent on the public school question?


This week's New Statesman: the 7 per cent problem

In a superb and wide-ranging essay in the magazine this week, David and George Kynaston address what we are calling the “7 per cent problem”: why does the private school minority still dominate public life? We ask, too, why the left is so silent on the subject of the dominance of the public schools – and what, if anything, it is prepared to do to improve the education of the poorest in society beyond defending the status quo. At present, as much as 50 per cent of Oxford and Cambridge graduates attended independent fee-paying schools; many of those from state schools who make it to Oxbridge went to selective grammars, of which 165 still remain.

We know what the fundamentalist left is against: academic selection, free schools, greater autonomy for schools and their head teachers. Fiona Millar is one of the leaders of this faction and was on the Today programme this morning speaking about the Kynastons’ New Statesman essay.

We know that the fundamentalist faction despises the private fee-paying schools and would rather abolish than try to reform them (a move the Kynastons reject), as has happened in India. Under the Indian reforms, private schools are compelled to take 25 per cent of children from the poorest families, selected randomly by lottery.

So what can be done to dismantle British education’s Berlin Wall?

As Education Secretary Michael Gove said in a speech in 2012:

More than any other developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.

The left – and especially the teaching unions – loathe Gove. He was a colleague of mine on the Times in the mid-1990s, and even if I disagree with him on many issues I can say this about him: he cares about the need for greater social mobility. As the adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger, he knows how his life was transformed by a good education and he wants thousands of less fortunate children to have the chance to ride the educational escalator to a better life, as he did.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Eton to speak to the Political Society, one of the many long-established groups run by the boys themselves. Recent guest speakers have included Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, and Robert Chote, head of the Office for Budget Responsibility. (I try to visit as many schools as time will allow but most of the invitations I get come from the elite private schools or from grammar and specialist state academies, such as JFS in north-west London. It could also be that comprehensive schools no longer have the budget to subscribe to magazines such as the New Statesman, sadly.)

To recap: Eton, founded in 1440 by Henry VI as an institution to educate 70 boys from poor families, has produced 19 British prime ministers, most recently, of course, David Cameron.

As a guest, you have drinks and then an intimate supper at the residence of the housemaster in one of the 25 boarding houses. Five or six boys are invited and in this way they gain the experience of meeting and conversing with influential people from outside the school. Small wonder that this year Eton will send nearly 100 (out of 250 boys in the upper sixth) to Oxford or Cambridge. No other school will send so many pupils to Oxbridge.

Like the other leading public schools, Eton has become rigorously academically selective. The boy who invited me to speak at the school was not at all wealthy. Born in Ghana, he attended a comprehensive in east London before winning a sixth-form scholarship to Eton. The headmaster, Anthony Little, told me that as many as 260 boys are receiving financial assistance. “There are about 45 boys who pay nothing at all. We actually pay 110 per cent for them because we take the view that all the fees need remising. There’s the uniform and pocket money . . .”

Little attended the school himself in the 1960s (“when it was very different”) but does not come from a privileged background, and is the first male in his family to be educated over the age of 14. “I came from a background that was so alien to any kind of educational experience,” he told me. “My father was a security guy at Heathrow and my mother was a secretary at the local hospital. I came in on a scholarship . . . Not to be romantic about it, but that is a reason why I do the job: I feel an obligation to pay back.”

I left Eton that night feeling no resentment or hostility. But as I drove home in the cold January rain, I wished that so many more children, from all social backgrounds, could benefit from the kind of education enjoyed by the fortunate few – mostly now the sons of the super-rich – at what was once King Henry VI’s school for poor scholars.

The Kynastons end their essay thus:

There is a moment to be seized. The loosening up of the state system through academies and free schools has blown away the old plea of the private schools to be left alone in splendid, independent isolation; social mobility is going backwards; the question of our rich/poor divide in education has been spotlighted not only by the make-up and social background of our current cabinet but also by the increased profile of organisations such as Teach First, dedicated to enhancing equality of opportunity. While on the left we have the haunting, ever more distant memory of 1945, with the knowledge that missed opportunities take a very long time to come round again.

In his New Year message Ed Miliband claimed that people “do not want the earth” but prefer credible specifics, as embodied in his pledge on energy bills. Yet, however skilfully done, there is enormous danger in a strategy of pick-and-choose if it vacates the rest of the field to others. The left should not see the private school question as insoluble, nor too dangerous to touch, but rather as the potential cornerstone of a narrative about a less divided society. It is a debate that should be open to all, regardless of which side of the divide they stand: bringing together all parents, all teachers and all children to craft an education system that gives opportunity to every student, and does not reserve the best prizes for a privileged few.

I’ll be publishing replies to the essay in next week’s magazine and I will be speaking to David and George Kynaston in this week’s New Statesman podcast.

To purchase a copy of the issue, visit www.newstatesman.com/subscribe or visit the App Store

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.