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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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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