Even more posh boys?

July 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

‘The Reith Lectures are not supposed to be political’ observed Niall Ferguson in the fourth and last of his Reith broadcasts this week. So why did the BBC give a turn to the right-wing TV historian, his ideological agenda no secret, in alignment with a Tory party orthodoxy that complains it has to struggle to be heard, all the while enacting policy without consultation?

I missed the first three programmes (except for an exchange when a student wrongfooted Mr Ferguson, who began a long rant with the words  ‘It isn’t cool to be conservative’, only to have the response  ‘I agree with you’  followed by a pause and ‘it is uncool to be conservative’ – to much laughter from the audience). In today’s Edinburgh audience less than a handful were given time to put questions, each of which was only mildly challenging.

Politeness appeared the toughest obstacle to demolishing Ferguson’s muddled arguments. The gist was the virtues of The Big Society and the concomitant evils of dependency on the State. Leaning heavily on Alexis de Tocqueville and the American neo-liberal model, he blathered on about clubs and volunteering – he had sought help for the clearing up of litter on the beach in front of his house in Wales and the locals had rallied; he himself belongs to several clubs in Britain and the US (where he uses the sports facilities, the dining facilities and guestrooms – all stated without apparent irony). He then homed in on education and the desirability of non-state schools. His own schooling had been private and he didn’t deny the advantages it gave him. He concluded, therefore, that since private schools are superior there should be more of them and that they should offer bursaries so that more children from lower-income families could benefit. And he wanted more free schools too, state funded but with a bedrock of volunteering from the aspirational middle classes, as well as more of the Blair-inspired academies.

Only 7% of secondary school students attend private schools (which includes those misnamed as ‘public’) yet the privately educated dominate at Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities, just as they dominate in journalism, broadcasting and sundry professions. They run the country. This distortion is a very British phenomenon, unparalleled anywhere else in Europe. It makes ours probably the most class-bound society in the developed world. I find it shocking and shameful. 

How to change this? What if we follow Mr Ferguson’s line of thinking to a more logical conclusion? Private schools are superior. Yes, they are. Why is that? Because by charging fees they have more money (in the case of Eton, Harrow, Westminster and a number of others, these fees are very large indeed). With much greater resources than comprehensives they can provide more teachers, smaller classes, tuition in a greater range of subjects, better amenities of all kinds, etc etc. And they can send their students out into the world with an enormous sense of entitlement. Will a few bursaries per private school make a difference to these disparities?

Solid, generous investment in state education is what’s needed. The education of all would benefit from greater resources being put into the schools attended by the 93% of school students, and from an end to the educational apartheid that blights this country.

The money will need of course to come from higher taxation of the wealthy. It is the wealthy whose children attend the likes of Eton (fees: £10,689 a term), St Paul’s (£9,882 a term), Fettes (where Tony Blair was educated – £9,050 a term) or, lower down the scale, University College School (£5000 + a term). And the first, small but important step is clearly to abolish the charitable status of such institutions and make sure that they pay tax – something that’s long been resisted and that any future Labour government with a backbone should insist on.

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