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2 February 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 11:07am

Letter of the week: The progressive dilemma

By New Statesman

David and George Kynaston demonstrate clearly enough that private school alumni dominate the best universities and the best-paid jobs – but they fail to explain why (“Education’s Berlin Wall”, 31 January).

The answer is that these schools don’t just charge fees; they also practise rigorous academic selection. This is reinforced by the ability of academically elitist schools to attract some of the most academically gifted teachers (check out the number of PhDs at Eton or Manchester Grammar). Such factors also once defined state grammar schools – which might explain why dominance by the private schools is greater now than it was 50 years ago.

The problem for many egalitarians – including, it seems, the Kynastons – is that they are also quite keen on meritocracy (hence their focus on admissions figures for Oxbridge and the professions). But meritocracy is linked to competitiveness and unequal outcomes, which the left has historically arraigned. Perhaps their essay is an example in itself of the progressive dilemma.

Richard Kelly


Down with walls

The Kynastons (“Education’s Berlin Wall”, 31 January) are right to say that the left must address the matter of the private schools. This will involve conceding that, though fee-paying makes them extrinsically bad for society, there are indeed “intrinsic merits” to the way they educate. To adapt the words of Geoffrey Goodman, “privilege of any kind will [not] wither away in an acquisitive society”, which is why the incorporation of the private into the state sector must continue. However, Michael Gove’s dream of making state schools indistinguishable from fee-paying ones involves simply spending £11,510 per pupil per year. Brass tax, as it were, Mr Gove?

Joshua Gaskell

London W4

“Education’s Berlin Wall” is a breath of fresh air. However, private day schools are not to be equated with the public boarding schools. The latter educate less than 1 per cent of pupils yet have provided 50 per cent of the present cabinet.

The ruling elite are drawn from a ridiculously small clique of schools, producing rulers who are cut off from their emotions (the only way to survive if you’ve been sent away at seven or eight) and who are divorced from the life experiences of the majority.

Simon Partridge

London N2

So private schools confer unearned privileges and reinforce class inequalities: they are a great unleveller. Why would increased sharing of those privileges remove, and not merely shift, unfair inequalities between those with access and those without? To conclude that whether private schools should exist is not the question, because “we are where we are”, seems a stark non sequitur. Shouldn’t we be somewhere else?

Gideon Calder

Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan

The reductionist argument that private schools are superior relies on their examination statistics. However, drilling small groups of literate, reasonably intelligent and compliant students to pass exams is not that difficult – which is why even the unqualified teachers employed by these institutions can do it. Their real function has nothing to do with learning – it is to maintain a very narrow and, in some cases, hugely incompetent, cohort in control of our societal institutions. It is a matter of huge concern, therefore, that it is David Cameron, Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw who are pressing private schools to become more accountable and inclusive, and not Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt.

Max Fishel

Bromley, Greater London

The metaphor “Berlin Wall” was used by Michael Gove this week. It is a phrase that may have been picked up from the NS. The article also used another metaphor, “apartheid”, to identify these problems. “Class” was not mentioned. It has become a fuzzy word in our meritocracy, confusing us all. So do we believe in upward social mobility as a reward for meritocratic educational success while losers have to be ignored?

Barbara Hill

Via email

The Kynastons note that private schools educate 7 per cent of the population, on which they confer great privilege. However, all the individuals they identify have one other thing in common. Is this 7 per cent of the whole population, or only the male half?

Stephen McNair

Coltishall, Norfolk

Machine age

There is an alternative perspective to Ian Leslie’s explanation (Observations, 31 January) of how the technological determinism of the second machine age has created inequality. It does not explain why the barista who serves cappuccinos to the successful executive should be paid a poverty wage. Why does this well-paid executive not pay more for his coffee?

The undervaluation of work in the service sector was a decision made by governments that wanted to make the UK the low-cost (wage) capital of Europe, to attract foreign businesses here. Similarly, the widening inequality is in large part due to the political decision to make the UK a tax-friendly country for the super-rich and multinational companies. Politicians can hide behind the excuse that it is technological change that has caused inequality, as it allows them to avoid having to take on the powerful corporations that dominate our economy.

Derrick Joad


Ian Leslie writes that “weavers became typists; typists became computer programmers”. Sorry, but wrong. Weaving and typing are manual activities, while programming is a skilled task with an average salary approaching £50,000.

Little wonder we are not able to develop our manufacturing sector and rebalance the economy, if technology journalists equate software engineers with typists.

Stuart Hodgson


Blood brothers

I was interested to read Phil Whitaker’s account of the mystery tan in the last issue (Health Matters, 31 January), particularly given that I thought he was going to write about genetic haemochromatosis (GH), which can also present as patients showing marked skin discolouration. This condition affects one in 200 northern Europeans and is widely underdiagnosed. It can lead to heart disease, liver cancer, diabetes mellitus and arthritis. The shame is that it is easy to diagnose (a simple blood test) and to treat – in my case, weekly bloodletting to use up the stored iron. And if caught early, more serious consequences can be avoided.

GPs know about GH but patients don’t, and often nobody makes the link between the presenting conditions, seeing them as the product of age or lifestyle. So, if you have two or more of the following – a mystery tan, fatigue, heart arrythmias, joint pains, diabetes mellitus, erectile dysfunction, early menopause and liver-related problems – suggest to your GP that you have a blood test.

Mike Davis


Open question

In reply to Dan Adshead’s letter about abortion (Correspondence, 31 January), if you think dilation is horrific, try experiencing childbirth.

Sophie Charman-Blower

Via email

Trendy teachers

Michael Gove will not be alone in welcoming his chief inspector’s new guidance advocating conventional teaching methods. Peter Wilby’s disclosure of this advice (First Thoughts, 31 January) is a gift to the entire teaching profession. When their lessons are next inspected, teachers will be in a win-win situation. If an inspector marks them down for “chalk and talk” they can refer to their boss’s instructions. And if criticised for relying on active, independent learning approaches they can point out that they are implementing the suggestions for improvement made at the previous Ofsted inspection.

As a teacher about to retire after a lifetime in the saddle, I offer some simple advice to new entrants to the profession. Try to ignore the pedagogical merry-go-round and develop a teaching style that works well for you and your students. Given the cyclical trends in educational fashion, your moment in the sun will come round soon enough.

David Andrews

Via email

The silent war

Rachel Cooke (The Critics, 31 January) is right about the distracting effect of music in TV documentaries: go instead to the Imperial War Museum and stand transfixed by a noiseless film loop of Tommies, pipe in mouth, grinning at the camera, going over the top, and sliding back within seconds, dead.

You are mesmerised, longing for there to be a different outcome, knowing there is not, watching again and again. And in that soundless repetition you hear, unbearably, what George Eliot called the “roar which lies on the other side of silence”.

Bob Ballard


Bash the Beeb

One of the pillars of the British establishment that has become more competitive and globalised is the mass media.

David Runciman’s thoughtful and wide-ranging article (NS Essay, 31 January) touches briefly on the formerly iconic BBC but does not follow up the corporation’s decline in a diversified and more pluralist environment, when many no longer need its Olympian refractions of what passes for received public taste.

Many poor women continue to be charged and imprisoned for failing to pay an annual tax to a former monopoly provider (whether they choose to access its programmes or not), while it overcompensates its sacked executives through the public purse and covers up its own scandals. Surely the licence fee deserves to be abolished.

Alan Bullion

Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Taxing question

It is always worth checking when a journalist tries to end his piece with a snappy punchline. George Eaton’s “income tax was introduced as a short-term measure to help fund the fight against Napoleon. Two hundred and fifteen years later it is still with us” (Observations, 31 January) is a classic, frequently repeated and ever wrong.

Yes, income tax was introduced by Pitt in 1799 as a temporary measure, which was repealed when his government fell in 1802. Reintroduced in 1803 by Addington when fighting with France resumed, it was repealed after Waterloo and not reintroduced until 1842. Since 1799 it has been with us for 182 years.

Not that this makes much difference today.

John Young

Usk, Monmouthshire

Fitting tribute

It was a very pleasant surprise to find Ed Smith using his column to focus on George Watson (Left Field, 31 January). George was a colleague over a great many years and Ed has him summed up very perceptively.

Michael Meadowcroft


Baby talk

Being male, I was baffled by your Letter of the Week (24 January). In it, Ruth Lockley rationalises her desire to have children as “how I choose to value and grow other human beings”.

I have now watched my wife go through three pregnancies (one resulting in twins). Lez Miserable’s views (17 January) struck me as more accurate; the desire isn’t a matter of rational choice, not at all. Rather, a biological urge kicks in – regardless of practical concerns or previous pain – and leads the woman to find babies “disgustingly enchanting”.

Chris Simms

Stockport, Merseyside

On babies, Alice O’Keeffe (Squeezed Middle, 31 January) needs to bear in mind Oscar Wilde’s cigarette: “It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?” I read her piece to my wife (the mother of four sons, all now grown up and gone) and her eyes instantly moistened at the mention of chubby baby legs and pudgy tummies … which was what drove her on to the third and fourth and would have meant a fifth and more, had I not then availed myself of the facilities provided by Marie Stopes.

She is still waiting with mounting frustration for grandchildren. In short, Alice, you are stuck with that craving for life and it won’t matter whether you have two children or 200.

Guy de la Bedoyere

Welby, Lincolnshire

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