In the last week we have heard complaints from not one but two cabinet ministers about the insidious and unfair advantages that the privately educated enjoy in our society. As a state school boy myself, I richly enjoyed the irony of this lecture coming from two privately educated members of a Cabinet whose membership criteria appears, with the very odd exception, to comprise not only being a white male but also significant personal wealth and an education at one of our most prestigious public schools. And yet what they said will have struck a chord with many. The grossly disproportionate number of those at our top universities and in the senior ranks of politics, industry, finance, the law and media who were educated not just independently but at one of only a handful of such schools, belies our pretensions to live in a meritocracy.
What is even more depressing is that the breaking of the mould by the post war grammar school generation was, in retrospect, no more than a temporary blip in the status quo. Successive governments have recognised the criticality of education to equality of opportunity but have done little to address the problem. Parents justifiably feel that the state has abrogated one of its fundamental responsibilities: to give every child a fair chance to realise his full potential regardless of class or wealth. A small minority simply opt out and go private. A sizeable majority tell the pollsters that they would do the same if they could afford it. Some spend the extra tens, or hundreds, of thousands needed to buy a house in the right catchment area. A few just lie about where they live. Others feign religious devotion and the Toby Youngs of the world start their own school and get the rest of us to pay for it. Meanwhile every place at the remaining grammar schools is oversubscribed tenfold and desperate parents are funding an industry of private tutors. This pantomime is a damning indictment of our governance.
Few issues evoke such a visceral response as education. Why wouldn’t it, when the quality of a child’s schooling will determine the rest of his life? How rich, then, would be the political rewards for the party which seized the agenda and offered a radical restatement of the aims and methods of our educational system. Not just tinkering around the edges with the promise of one micro initiative or another, but a recognition that our educational system is not fit for purpose in the 21st century and the offer of an alternative. Something that will convince the politically critical successors to Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman that their state schools will make their children the best that they can be and take them as far as they can go. A strategy that would outflank the Tories and show that Labour had left behind the tired dogma of the past.
For Labour to take the initiative, and to reap the political reward, will require another Clause 4 moment since they are going to have to confront the shibboleth of selection. I am not proposing a return to the 11+, with its awful segregation of such young children into successes and failures on the basis on a single test and the slow death of hope at a hopelessly underfunded and demoralised secondary modern. But the reality of life is that we are not all the same. We all have different strengths. To pretend otherwise, and to make the same educational offer to each child does none of them any favours. I am the youngest of four brothers. I loved school, did my A-levels and went to Oxford. The other three were thoroughly miserable, left at sixteen feeling that they were failures and took years to find a vocation at which they could each excel. Our experience was hardly unique.
I have my own ideas about the right way to go. I think that a form of selection is inevitable: but one based on a student’s whole career, not just one IQ test, and later, say at 14 rather than at the end of primary school. I wouldn’t be frightened of a choice at that stage between a more technical or practical education of the type that my brothers would have enjoyed and the more academic that suited me, so long as both were equally well funded and there was the ability to transfer between the two, should the original choice prove a mistake. A modern technical college could offer courses and qualifications in subjects like engineering, IT, production management and media as well as the more traditional vocations. Things that the bored teenagers currently staring out of the schoolroom window counting the days until they leave might actually want to learn.
There should also be a properly funded, structured and monitored system of apprenticeships that was comprehensively tied in with the technical colleges to provide a coherent stepping stone between education and employment. And I would want those schools that specialised in the more academic disciplines to do so with unashamed ambition for their students and to instil in them the belief that no university’s or profession’s door was closed to them. Such a system would echo the best elements of the German model that has served their society and economy so well.
Those that advocate the status quo not only overlook its manifest failure but forget the effect of peer pressure on the teenage child. They need to be in an environment where their particular talents are appreciated and respected not only by the teaching staff but by the other children. A place where working hard, at whatever it is, is the cool thing to do. Where nobody can coast, because they are so much more academic than the others, or give up because they don’t have the same aptitude for, and are anyway uninterested in, the subjects they are being taught.
Labour needs to face up to the fact that the pretence that one size fits all is gifting the future to a privileged minority. We are deluding ourselves and, more importantly, our children if we pretend that our entire educational system isn’t already based on the principle of selection. The tragedy is that the current criteria are wealth and class rather than ability and aptitude. If we, as a party, can offer a bold and compelling alternative, then the future is ours. If we cannot, then we should not be in the business of politics.
John Whitting is a QC and member of the Labour Party.