The reaction of the media to John Major’s criticism of private schools last week made it sound like the former prime minister had unearthed an incredible discovery about British society. “We’ve cracked inequality!” seemed to be the general message. “Finally, an answer to our problems!” Sadly, this reaction shows exactly how easily the entrenched problems of the status quo are hidden away. The fact it takes a Conservative former prime minister to point out the disparity of our country is proof enough that it is only a select few who can garner the attention of the UK’s institutions of influence. However, while Major rightly diagnoses a key problem within our school system, his cure for the disease – the return of grammar schools – is the wrong prescription and like any infection, without treatment the growth of private school influence will only continue to grow.
The hegemony of the private school elite is blatantly obvious within Britain. It only takes a few facts in order to assert this point; while reading these, bear in mind that 7% of Britain’s pupils currently attend fee-paying schools. 34% of MPs went to private schools (and a majority of Conservative MPs). David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Justin Welby, Nick Clegg and George Osborne all enjoyed an education their parents had to pay for, with the first three of this list attending the same establishment (no prizes for guessing which). Away from politics, a third of British London 2012 Olympians were privately educated, while cultural figures like Richard Curtis, Florence Welch, Benedict Cumberbatch and Will Young all have a fee-paying education in common. Public school pupils are 55 times more likely to gain an offer from Oxford or Cambridge than students at state schools who qualify for free school meals. There should be no denial that a private education massively raises your chances of success in this country. No wonder that a recently published social mobility index by Miles Corak placed Britain at a lower level than France, Germany, Japan and the USA (among many others, of course).
What can be done to even the playing field? Sorry, Mr. Major, but grammar schools are not the answer. A return to the ruthless system where a child’s life is mapped out from the age of 11, based on a single test, would do little to shift the balance of power. Hopes are crushed at an extremely young age and children are left trapped in a schooling system where many of them simply do not belong. Those from middle class backgrounds are significantly more likely to pass the 11-plus than working class kids, while a system that splits families and communities between those who can pass the test and those who cannot will do nothing to promote social mobility. Grammar schools used to and still do, in the counties where the system clings on, entrench class divisions further, just in a more subtle way than our private schools do. The last thing we need are more categories to divide children into.
Comprehensive schools provide the right climate and setup to nurture the development of pupils right from the age of 4 to 18 – they just need more attention. There are certainly lessons to be learned from private schools in order for the comprehensive system to improve. A pupil’s day at school must have the option to last longer: this involves more investment in extra-curricular activities surrounding the likes of sports, languages and specialised learning. These sorts of activities should be run by qualified coaches, rather than tired teachers who face a mountain of marking once they get home. The boarding fees for one pupil at Eton (roughly £32,000 a year) would cover the cost of a couple of part time sports coaches to run clubs so the school day does not end at 3pm for all children. To counter those who say a grammar school education is the best for empowering the brightest; comprehensive schools should not be afraid to stream classes in core subjects. The difference would be that those late-bloomers would have the opportunity to move up sets beyond the age of 11, rather than having a barrier between them and their peers. Finally, there should be stronger programmes in place to assist 16 and 17 year olds from all backgrounds who have the ability to attend university. Projects like AimHigher clearly are not doing enough. Those from private schools arrive at university with more confidence, better public speaking and more prominent ambitions than state school children – this must change in order to enhance social mobility.
The dominance of the children of wealthy parents in Britain is something that blows up a couple of times a year in the media – ironically, for it to gain any interest it has to be raised by someone in power (in this case John Major). A grammar school system is not the way to go to correct this. What we need is a focus on improving comprehensive education, both in the classroom and after school hours. Without such change, this country will remain in the hands of a privileged few.
By Luke Miller