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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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder