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Sir John Major is right about education and privilege in modern Britain

12 November 2013

12:18 PM

12 November 2013

12:18 PM

Sir John Major is, of course, correct. It is depressing, though perhaps not surprising, that the British upper-middle-classes – that is, those educated privately – still dominate what he termed the “upper echelons” of “every sphere of British influence”. Depressing because no serious person can sensibly believe that talent is restricted to the minority of people educated in Britain’s excellent private schools. But unsurprising because elites – I use the word dispassionately – have a natural tendency to do whatever it takes to maintain their elite status. Ed West is right about this.

Still, Major’s remarks were hardly, as has been claimed in some right-of-centre quarters, “an attack” on private education. They were, rather, an off-hand observation that might not, ordinarily, be thought controversial.

But this is Britain and it still takes very little to start a fight about class, privilege and education. No wonder Dan Hodges, Iain Martin, Ruth Porter, Harry Mount, James Delingpole and Martin Stephen have rushed into battle. And that’s just at the Telegraph!

Meanwhile, at ConservativeHome, Paul Goodman observes that, at least as far as the Tory party is concerned, Major’s critique applies less to David Cameron’s party than it did to the party Major led himself. As Goodman, correctly, points out there is little reason to suppose social mobility in Britain is getting worse. Most importantly, “The OECD ranks Britain ninth out of 30 on the extent to which children’s educational attainment is independent of their parents’ socio-economic status.”

That’s the not-bad news. The not-good news is that it actually counts as news that only 54% of Tory MPs were educated privately. It is, apparently, worth stressing that only slightly more than one in 20 Tory MPs attended one particular school in Windsor.

Of course, as the party of, in crude terms, the wealthy, one would expect Tory MPs to be disproportionately likely to be privately-educated. And, of course, more broadly speaking, one would expect graduates of our finest universities to occupy a large share of elite positions in all areas of society. (Even so, it would be useful sometimes to remember that Oxford and Cambridge are not the only first-class universities in Britain.)

Still, children educated at public school have great advantages. And not just because 7% of the population still account for roughly half the places at Oxford and Cambridge (a fact that makes the annual squealing about how these kids are discriminated against, a preposterous black-is-actually-white claim. There will be individual hard-luck stories; collectively they can have no real complaints). By contrast there are still – in 2013! – too many bright children in Hull or Wigan or wherever who do not receive the encouragement they need. Too many teachers in too many places who assume that Britain’s top universities are for other types of children. Too many kids whose lives are too defined by their parents own histories. Too much, much too much, squandered potential.

Left and right alike can perceive the problem. The difficulty is that neither has the answer, or at least not the whole answer. The left’s emphasis on equality of outcome is an impossible fancy; the right’s stress on equality of opportunity too often inadequate.

Systems matter, of course, but not as much as culture. Changing the ways in which schools are organised is not enough unless those reforms exist as a means of changing culture. And, again, changing a school’s culture may not be enough unless it is matches by changing – that is, improving – parental attitudes.

The great advantage enjoyed by private schools lies less in their teacher-pupil ratios, their lavish facilities and extensive extra-curricular programmes (important as all these may be). It is not even the product of twice-distilled rigorous selection first by academic potential and then by ability to pay. These things matter, clearly, but they are less important than something else: expectation.

These schools are good, in part, because they are expected to be good. Pupils excel, in general, because they are expected to excel. Kids graduate and attend excellent universities because they are expected to do so. And so the market responds to meet those expectations.  These expectations are so deeply embedded in the system that they generally pass without notice. They are not the result of conscious decisions they are, instead, just what is supposed to be. Not part of the deal but the point of the process. They just are. And that is the great advantage.

Grammar schools probably once did have some of these advantages. Merely making it to grammar school – surviving the 11 plus – confirmed status in a fashion that raised expectations. It did so at a heavy price, however, and modern-day supporters of grammar schools are also, inevitably, also supporters of a new generation of secondary moderns. That might – your mileage on this may vary – seem a price worth paying but no-one should be allowed to escape recognising that there is a price.

But structures and governance do matter too. The independence of free schools is their most important quality. It is not enough on its own, of course, since people matter too but the idea of free schools is to replicate, as fully as possible, in the state sector the ethos that makes Britain’s best private schools so successful. Sure, free schools won’t have their own rowing lake but they can, in theory and in time, do their best to adopt the habits, culture and expectations that define the best public schools. That’s not to say such reforms could not happen inside local authority control; merely that they are more likely, all things being equal, to happen when schools are independent.

Choice and competition have an important part to play – not least because they’ve clearly helped improve standards in the private sector – but they can’t be the answer everywhere. What use is choice in small towns across Britain in which there is only one secondary school? There, it seems to me, independence is a vital component to driving up standards and meeting local needs. I see no reason why schools in small town Britain (north, south and west of the borders) should not in fact be run by the towns themselves. Local accountability and local ownership could help transform these places too. It would be a start anyway.

It is not a surprise that graduates from Britain’s best schools and universities do well in life. What is shocking – per John Major – is that there are still too few good schools and, consequently, still too many pupils whose chances are limited before they’ve even had a chance to prove themselves. It doesn’t have to be that way but to change things we need a revolution in expectations.



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