The Great Divide

Just so you know, Lucy Mangan agrees with me on the whole state/independent thing – goine one step further, she believes that closing independent schools and outlawing private education would pump money and resources into the state education system and improve state education no end. I don’t know about that. I wish, but I don’t believe that that would be the case.

Furthermore she claims that the great divide between private and state education in the UK is as pernicious and unfair as the whole healthcare thing in the US – those who can afford to pay do, and while those who can’t pay here in the UK don’t die as a result of their education, it’s definitely arguable that it’s to our serious detriment, in many cases.

Not mine to any great extent, obviously I didn’t come off too badly – I’m one of the lucky ones that had a brain good enough to get by anyway, and I’m sure there are plenty of Americans who are healthy enough all their lives to not really need the medical care they can’t afford to be insured for anyway. Here I could bitch and moan about how if I’d had a more supportive education I might have ended up doing medicine somewhere really good, because I do half think that, and it’s true, I should have made more effort but I was sixteen years old for crying out loud, and a fairly useless sixteen-year-old at that, all brains and no motivation, and there must be plenty of people like me who were pushed just that bit harder and who did make it, like I would have made it had I been made to work for it. That’s enough bitching and moaning, I am annoyed, but at myself as much as anything, for not being able to make the best of it. But there are plenty of other people who are let down by the education system. People who could have been great musicians or artists if they didn’t have to share violin lessons with three other tone-deaf twelve-year-olds on only two violins between them, or if they had had access to kilns or huge studios for casting and bronzework and things rather than cheap old pastels and watercolours with almost no pigment in them; people who could have been pushed that bit harder and might then have been the next prime minister but who instead are working as the manager of the local Barclay’s or something.

Anyway, look, everyone, look! Lucy Mangan agrees with me!!



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8 responses to “The Great Divide

  1. Anna


    I read the linked article with interest, but I have to say that I didn’t completely agree with it…

    (Before I begin, I went to a VERY working-class comprehensive, a state sixth-form and attended a top university as a result of this education)

    The problem that I see is that the suggestions seem to be in reverse. Yes, the state school system for the most part is not as good as the independent school sector, and this may be seen as unfair to children who cannot afford the priviledges accorded to their better-off counterparts (whether rich or whose parents struggled to give them the best education possible); but surely therefore the ideal should not be to outlaw the public school sector but rather to bring the standard of state schools up to that of the independant schools. Surely it is illogical to solve these problems by bringing all down to the lowest common denominator?

    In the 1970’s the Labour Government forced all selective grammar schools to choose either to become independent or comprehensive, maintaining the same teachers as before. The result: the overall educational standard fell. In Labour’s School Standards and Frameworks Act of 1998, the choice of whether to maintain selection was left to the parents of the area, petitions started in many areas to gain signatures of support. The only area where 20% of signatures was gained (enough to support a subsequent ballot) was in Ripon. In all the other areas, the parents wished to maintain the option of school selection for their children.

    Part of belonging to a democracy is choice. We have the choice of where we want to send our children, and to suggest abolishing state schools, to force children into identical schools is to suggest movement towards a dictatorship. Is this really what we want in our country?

    Also, to talk of unfair advantage is a flawed premise to begin with. From reading past entries of your blog (which is very enjoyable by the way!) I see that you play the ‘cello. Is it not therefore an unfair advantage that either you or your parents have funded you ‘cello lessons, instruments, rosin etc. that many parents could not afford? Advantage starts from babyhood; my parents would buy me books from an early age, something which many children I later went to school with had not had. Did this mean I had an advantage over those other children? Yes! Was that an unfair advantage? I don’t think so. I read an article which suggested the only way to solve this issue was to stop parents bringing up their own children, instead removing children from their families at birth and thereby making sure that they all enjoyed the same advantages. I don’t subscribe to this concept, but it does raise a point; that advantage starts from birth, and there is no way to completely eradicate it.

    I know this is on a slightly different scale, but I would still be interested in hearing your thoughts?

    Independant schools derive much of their income from the fees the parents pay, helping to fund better facilities, teachers and other neccessities. This money would not magically appear in the state system, so their would be a massive influx of students and less money with which to subsidise their education? Would you suggest therefore raising taxes? Forcing the parents who would have sent their children to independant schools to pay the now redundant school fees to the government for potentially a worse education, and an identical one to that which most children get for free? How is that any fairer?

    Also, as a state school teacher and a firm believer in the principle of state education, I wish to give my future children the best start in life, regardless of school type. Why would I potentially jepordise their education and future prospects by sending them to a mediocre state school over a good private school? Does this make me a bad person?

  2. Lucy

    And me! I read that in the magazine at the time! And oh, I do love Lucy Mangan.

  3. Well, if you get rid of private education there will still be schools that get better reputations which will put house prices in those areas up, ergo richer kids get the better schools.

    And Tilly and Pippa and Sebastian are going to go to private schools and some silly bint from the Guardian isn’t going to stop that.

  4. standingonthebrink

    [I went to a fairly mediocre state school and a state sixth form (I think my real problems lie with the sixth form I attended; it wasn’t at all right for me) and I too am at a top university – for my course, it’s something like the third or fourth best in the country. I honestly merely wish I wasn’t doing this course, but i couldn’t get into medicine, so… .]

    It still stands that only 6% of children in Britain are privately educated; so the influx into state schools of these children would not be ‘massive’. Furthermore the positive impact of the influx of resources and teachers these schools have would far outweigh the negative impact of the increase in students. I still feel that with a massive overhaul of hte system all children in the UK could get an education to match that provided by any decent independent school. We just need to completely rethink our approach to education.

    I think parents should have the choice about where to send their children, yes, but I also think that *all* parents should have that choice which at the moment just isn’t the case. However I see no fail-safe way of making sure that all children *can* have the education they deserve, which is why I want to send my children to a good school whether I have to pay for it or not, if I possibly can. I’m not trying to suggest that we take children away, like the Spartans did, and bring them up all together – of course not. And of course advantage starts from birth. But schooling and having a decent education could be a way of starting to even out the balance a bit – so that child X, who didn’t get read to as a child and couldn’t read until he came to school, who didn’t get piano and trumpet lessons from the age of five, or anything like that, whose parents see going to school as a necessary evil and want him to leave and get a job at age 16 so he can pay rent to them, can be given the opportunity to have lessons on the trumpet in school, or write brilliant essays and read voraciously because his teachers encourage him to do those things and allow him to explore what he is good at and so that he ends up going to Cambridge or a music college or something having had the opportunities to discover those things in school that he might not have done at home. Of course some kids grow up with more ‘advantages’ tahn others. Surely the job of a good school is to try and redress the balance where it can, rather than just drag us all to a vague standard of literacy and then watch us drown? Currently despite the best efforts of many teaching staff (I have nothing but gratitude and love for many of my teachers) there isn’t the time, nor are there the resources, to do anything beyond the bare minimum.

    I do’nt know what could be done but I don’t see how it isn’t possible to change the way our children are schooled so that it’s fairer. There are plenty of countries where this is the case. But yes, until then, I will save and scrimp and fight to get the education for my children that is the best I can provide for them.

  5. Dickie

    Only in Britain could private schools also be referred to as public schools. What a wonderful country we live in 🙂

    I don’t really have much of an opinion on public schools, anyway. They’re probably not ideal because they might take resources from the rest of the school system. But they’re probably here to stay and I still think it’s possible to get a good education at a normal comprehensive school. There are problems with that system, yes (such as dumbing down of the syllabus), but getting rid of public schools won’t solve those problems.

    I think a lot/most of the responsibility for a child’s education lies with their parents. If they simply shirk that responsibility entirely onto the school, then they’re probably not doing their job properly.

  6. Dickie

    BTW, whats your opinion on grammar schools?

  7. standingonthebrink

    I think they’re A Good Thing but I probably wouldn’t think that if I wasn’t certain that I would have *aced* the 11-plus. I think it’s wrong for the standard of a child’s education to be based on their parents’ income but I don’t think it’s wrong to be sent to a more academically intensive school if you’re more intelligent as long as the alternative for those that don’t get into grammar school is as good for its own students as the grammar is for pupils there, if that makes sense.

  8. agletsandampersands

    I wrote a terribly erudite-sounding answer to this earlier, and the internets ate it, so this is probably going to be far less pompous and irritating. Roughly: the problem with private schools is not merely that those whose circumstances preclude their being able to afford access to them are disadvantaged because they happen to exist, but is that there is, despite state education, a market for them, and individuals in need of an education who will go to private schools because their individual needs will be better met there than at the local comprehensive. While that genuine educational market (rather than the small and rather silly market for prestige, and the perhaps rather less silly and more invidious market for connections) remains, simply trying to turn of private schools at the tap, as it were, is nonsensical, unhelpful, disingenuous, damaging and indeed no more than a hollow political gesture; as Anna pointed out above, reducing all schools to the lowest common denominator simply reduces opportunities instead of providing greater access to them.

    Economic arguments for and against are interesting, particularly re. charitable status; according to figures I have not substantiated, the independent sector saves c. £100 million in tax due to its charitable status and saves the public purse c. £3 billion by providing independently-funded services which the Government has been contracted to pay for. The main problem with private schools, then, is not the obvious economic cost, but the less visible human cost. In order to justify their fees, they must provide a markedly better teaching service than their local competitors; in order to provide a better teaching service, they must employ better teachers; in order to employ better teachers they have to entice them away from the state sector, and this they do (certainly in part) by paying them better. If the Government were to up teachers wages to match the competition from independent schools, they would retain those amongst the cream of their teaching staff whose skills they – and their pupils – would otherwise lose to the private sector and probably price a lot of private schools out of existence in doing so (private schools would have to raise wages and therefore fees or lose the ability to offer a better service, and the majority of their pupils’ parents would have to make the difficult decision between paying further extortionate fees and suffering a drop in living standards at the least or move to the state sector). (This, of course, is highly unlikely to happen, as the overall cost, both in terms of prima facie cost and the amount of extra outlay the Government would need to educate those who are turfed out of the contracting independent sector, but it would seem to reduce a lot of the problems, especially if stringent charitable-status standards were applied.) Thoughts?

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