There was a stir a little while back when liberal education writer Janet Murray explained her decision to send her child to a private school. This provoked predictable ‘mugged by reality’ jokes from the right and defences of the state system from the left.
Education policy in the UK is a politicised mindfield. We are proud of our comprehensive system and rightly so. Attempts to ‘reform’ it – from the Blair/Adonis academy programme through to Michael Gove’s turbocharged Blairism – are shouted down by leftwing pundits and the teaching unions. Gove is seen as a 1950s throwback who wants to turn every state school into a Hogwarts parody and sell the playing fields to News International.
I’m a product of the comprehensive school system, and I’ve done okay. However, support for free education does not mean you should ignore problems in its current provision. A damning report from the Torygraph claimed that almost half of school leavers have ‘poor literacy’ and that the army has to reject hundreds of new signups because they couldn’t pass the most basic literacy tests.
It’s the Torygraph and it has an agenda. But my own experience supports the argument. I am constantly surprised at the number of people I meet who cannot make themselves understood or write a coherent sentence. Schools have a lot to do. They have to teach our children how to read and write and count up, they have to ground some kind of appreciation of arts and history and our place in the universe. They also need to provide life lessons about money, sex, and how to handle yourself in a hard world. I’m not convinced that all our state schools are doing this.
It’s not necessarily the fault of the schools. They have been hit by the 2000s baby boom. In parts of London kids are taught in rigged portakabins. Schools are so overcrowded that council bosses are considering setting up classrooms in disused businesses and warehouses and also ‘split shift’ teaching, a system currently used in war-strafed Gaza.
Despite everything, England is still in love with its aristocracy and the private alternative continues to fascinate. There’s a brilliant piece by Christopher Hitchens where he explores the public’s absorption with the education of the sons and daughters of the elite, from ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ to Harry Potter. He quotes Orwell:
It is quite clear that there are tens and scores of thousands of people to whom every detail of life at a ‘posh’ public school is wildly thrilling and romantic. They happen to be outside that mystic world of quadrangles and house-colors, but they can yearn after it, daydream about it, live mentally in it for hours at a stretch.
Easy to enthrall, easy to ridicule. Nonsense uniforms, piping and braying public schoolboys, connotations of homosexuality, male rape and what Amis calls the ‘English nostalgia for chastisement’, songs with hundreds of stanzas and sports that are almost impossible to understand – these are part of our shared culture of comedy. There’s also a distaste of intellectualism there, the idea that to read and study makes you effete, ludicrous, somehow less than human and cut off from the world. We like to pretend that we came up through the university of life, and that everything about us comes from hard worn experience rather than leisurely abstraction. This idea comes from the schoolyard but gets carried on into adult life.
In this context, Michael Gove type ideas of bringing back Latin and sending every school a King James Bible sound crazy. Intellectuals, of course, say and do some harmful and stupid things. But the working class rejection of intellectualism has done them no good at all. Not in a country where you need a degree to get an office job and you need to fill in a stack of forms to get a shelf stacker job. Government has made things worse on this, by introducing worthless vocational qualifications that don’t go anywhere. Conservatives recognise this and moan about BTecs in hairdressing. But conservatives are part of this culture of reactionary philistinism. They sneer at any degree course that doesn’t have an immediate vocational application in the private sector. They ignore the practical value of the humanities. They look down on working class kids who like to use their imagination.
Is Michael Gove’s alternative vision any good? Maybe. Free schools horrified people when they were first proposed, but now, sane leftwing heads are coming round to the idea. But a third of the schools set up are religious schools, and a few are even creationist. This ain’t just a secularist issue. Would you support a maths teacher who taught pupils that 2 + 2 = 5 or a history teacher who was convinced the Holocaust never happened?
But – and finally coming back to Murray’s piece – the crux of this argument isn’t about politics at all. You may have a utopian vision but how are you going to help your child in the world as it actually exists? You want the best for your children and nothing is as selfish as a mother’s love. Allocation season is a vicious clusterfuck, which again has been made worse by the population boom. Janet Murray runs through the ways parents game the system:
But the state sector is full of parents buying advantage. They kid themselves that what they are doing is somehow morally superior. The truth is that every person who moves house to get into a catchment area is playing the system. So are those who pay private tutors, or consultants to help with school appeals (both booming businesses). Parents who suddenly discover a faith in God to get their children into a certain school are lying and cheating. There will be people reading this – including some loyal Education Guardian readers – who have done some or all of these things.
If we lived in a meritocracy with excellent free education – then you could argue that Murray’s choice is unjustifiable. But we live in a sclerotic post-imperial backwater where so much depends on family and connection. That’s not going to change any time soon, and until it does you cannot blame people for trying their best to fight their way through a rigged game.