Blairite Lord Adonis attacks MPs who send their children to private schools – and Mehdi Hasan calls for the banning of private education altogetherPosted: September 7, 2012 Filed under: Politics, Public Schools, Westminster | Tags: Lord Adonis, Mehdi Hasan, private education, public schools 3 Comments
The issue of the apartheid-like education system we have in the UK has come to the fore in the last two years. One factor influencing this was the election of a new government so blatantly dominated by men from the top public schools, together with efforts on the part of Nick Clegg to downplay his own very privileged background (and the public schoolboy handshakes which led to the formation of the coalition in the first place) by talking a lot about social mobility. This rhetoric has however not been backed up with any concrete policies, nor the blocking of Tory policies which have precisely the reverse effect. Nonetheless it has had the effect of making many aspects of our class-ridden society part of public debate again, in a way which they were not either during the Major years, with the empty promise of a ‘classless society’ on his part, nor during the Blairite New Labour era. One exception was the intervention on the part of Gordon Brown in 2000 concerning the non-admission of Laura Spence to Oxford, for which he was roundly attacked both by some of the public school tendency in the Labour Party, and especially by the overwhelmingly privately educated British media. So it is a real surprise, and most refreshing, to see former Blairite guru and now advisor to Ed Miliband, Lord (formerly Andrew) Adonis, attacking MPs who educate their children privately but still want to have their say in state education . The left-wing columnist Mehdi Hasan goes a stage further, drawing upon the idea of US billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet in calling for the complete abolition of private education . This is a radical but correct idea, which could bring about a fundamental transformation of the nature of British society. When the ruling and middle classes actually have a stake in state education, the political pressure for better schools, resources, and so on will be far greater; as it stands in large measure their fate is determined by an elite who have no personal interest in the matter.
Private education (speaking as one who was himself privately educated) is an archaism and a shocking reminder of a fundamentally divided society. The privately educated, only around 7% of the population, are disproportionately represented at Oxbridge and the Russell Group Universities. It may be some time before a radical proposal like that of Hasan is seriously contemplated, but in the interim, I would propose something more modest: that universities in the UK have quotas of students they can admit, no greater percentage of the privately educated than exist in the nation as a whole – thus no more than 7% privately educated. With some will and imagination, a similar policy could perhaps be implemented in the workplace as well?
I actually agree that private education is basically indefensible, I just don’t think there’s any remotely realistic way to get rid of it. Nor do I think that this ‘quota system’ you and others have suggested would really tackle the problem in a particularly effective way.
1) The problem with Oxbridge/RG admissions is not really the number of private versus state school students admitted–the problem is really with the number of students from lower-income backgrounds admitted. Private schools actually facilitate the admission of some of these students into top universities and result in the kind of social mobility I suspect you’d support: I myself recently finished my A-Levels at an independent secondary school/sixth form which I attended on a full bursary, and in three weeks I’m going to start my degree at Cambridge. Had I not been offered that opportunity in the first place I don’t know if I would have been as successful: going to a school that informs us about things like essay competitions and allows us to take more off-piste subjects like Latin was undoubtedly a big help. On the other hand, a disproportionately large number of students who count towards Oxbridge’s ‘state’ intake actually come from high-achieving grammar schools (which still exist in many parts of the country) often dominated by the middle classes–schools often totally indistinguishable from independent schools in other parts of the country and with a similarly socially exclusive intake. If, as you propose, admissions is based on a system of quotas of privately-educated students, the fundamental problem–the lack of class diversity–will not really be solved: what is most likely is that those places will be filled by students from the same class backgrounds who happened to go to good state schools just because of the geography. All that your proposal would do is mean that able and often underprivileged students would be deprived of places they deserve in favour of worse students often from more privileged backgrounds who happened to go to state schools.
2) The figure that is always trotted out here–that 7% of pupils are privately educated–is also itself extremely misleading. In the first place, more like 20% of students staying on at education after 16 are privately educated. But if you’re talking about Oxbridge/RG admissions the figure that you really need to look at is what proportion of students getting the *right grades* in the *right subjects* are privately educated, and also the number of students from each school type who actually apply to these universities in the first place. Oxford and Cambridge in particular are very eager to admit students from state schools and from less privileged backgrounds–read this very amusing and very insightful article on Trinity College’s website for instance http://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/index.php?pageid=1063. As he points out, successful Cambridge applicants in the 2009/10 cycle achieved on average 2.5 A* grades: roughly 40% of students achieving these grades in suitable subjects came from private schools. Cambridge’s very rigorous analysis of the statistics in this report: http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/admissions/research/docs/offa_pi_report.pdf gives a closer look at the numbers. The gist of that report is that, all things being equal, and taking into account the level of attainment in the private and state sectors, roughly 60-63% of Cambridge’s intake should come from the state sector. In 2009 the figure was more like 58%. What this shows, I think is that the reason why independent schools punch above their weight is not that universities are biased in their favour or like posh accents or anything as ridiculous as that–as the Trinity admissions tutor says, they are not a bunch of “tweet-clad bufton tuftons” seeking to “perpetuate their breed” by admitting “dim toffs”. They just admit the best students.
The best way to tackle the problems with HE admissions–the real problem i.e. pupils from deprived backgrounds being under-represented, not the fake problem of the admission of many privately-educate students–is actually not to do anything at all involving HE, which does the best it can to facilitate access already. The way to fix it is to sort out comprehensive schools and make sure that pupils who have the “potential” to get good results do actually get those results, make sure that Oxbridge/RG outreach programs go even further to help dispel myths about biases in favour of the private sector, and perhaps for the government to take part in the sort of state-subsidised bursary schemes currently being proposed by a number of private schools ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/05/private-schools-poorer-pupils-fees ). The ham-fisted restriction of the number of worthy but privately-educated pupils being admitted to top universities that you propose is well-intended but ultimately would only make the problem worse.
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