Editor’s blog: Private school-bashing and social mobility

Alan Milburn’s report yesterday about UK social mobility – or the lack of it – has been met with a mixture of sighs, sage nodding and raspberries. ‘Birth, not worth, has become a key determinant of people’s chances,’ observed Milburn, who dragged himself up by his bootstraps. He should know, because the unavoidable conclusion is that despite trumpeting ‘Education Education Education’ until the cows came home, the New Labour experiment with schools has failed pretty miserably. If, after 12 years, the Government still cannot do better with state education, then something remains very seriously wrong.

Last summer, fewer than half British children left school at 16 with five ‘good’ GCSEs, including the key subjects of English and Mathematics, the minimum demanded by most employers and universities. With the massive increase in funding, this is disgraceful. In no other area of life, public or private sector, would such failure be tolerated. There has to be some sort of market-based voucher system introduced, or otherwise poor schools who fail their pupils just carry on regardless.

When I spoke to the deputy headmaster of a major public school recently, he pointed out that his organisation was desperate to attract poorer but able pupils into the establishment via free places. (It had done so up until the 1980s when local authorities sponsored assisted places.) He knows the heat is on from the likes of Gordon Brown who is possessed of a nasty animus against public schools – along with Oxford and Cambridge – and threatens repeatedly to remove their charitable status. They had a large bursary fund in place but when it came to filling the places it ran into serious problems. They applied to several London boroughs to be allowed to attend state primary schools to talk about the free place scheme, but were not allowed in. They were the enemy, and their Trojan horse was barred entry. In the end they were reduced to bizarre marketing exercises such as taking out ads in the Crystal Palace Football club match day programme.

If private schools are good at what they do – and they ought to be with all the advantages they possess – what is the point of trying to attack and dismember them? Why attempt to drag them down to some miserable mediocre mean? Why, when middling-income parents make the sacrifice to send their children to independent schools – because they find what the state offers unacceptable – and thus pay twice for their kid’s education, should they then accept active discrimination against their kids when it comes to the most desirable university places? After forking out a hundred and seventy grand in fees over a decade and a half to be told that their child can’t have a place at medical school, because a rival with worse A-level grades who comes from a less privileged background has taken it, is pretty hard to swallow. Small wonder that growing numbers of kids are going to university in the States, from where they are unlikely to return once they have their degrees.

The whole issue depresses one’s spirit almost more than the economy, because it involves so much wasted potential among those too young to vote. The fact that this problem afflicts us in the UK more profoundly than our rivals in the Western World is painful. It’s not just money and education here that count – UK social mobility is a horribly complex beast with grim roots in the class system. There are some who place the blame at the door of those who abolished grammar schools, but no political party currently shows any sign of re-adopting them as a potential solution.

In today’s bulletin:
No full recovery for UK until 2014, says NIESR
No Jobs crunch at Apple as sales rise 12%
Editor’s blog: Private school-bashing and social mobility
Sven Goran Eriksson goes into turnaround
Size isn’t everything for today’s recruits

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    The problem with private schools is that they concentrate the better funded, able and engaged parents/students in one place – thereby reducing their number in other schools. That’s inequality of opportunities in action.

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    If what Louise says is a problem – and I don’t think it is – then the solution has got to be to improve the state system. God knows it’s had the money. Grammar schools were the true instigator of social mobility in the 50’s and 60’s so let’s have more of them.

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    William – you are quite correct, and in the 50s and 60s the secondary mods were pretty good too. Louis – no amount of social engineering can make parents ‘engaged’ they either want to be or they don’t but you can at least give the children of these disengaged parents every opportunity through a grammar school system to reach their potential and beyond. However, having mixed ability (the D streamers in the the A streamers as it would have been called in the ’60s) you can only go at the speed of the lowest achiever – and what about these at the back of the class with some classroom assistant helping them. Surely this must be yet another distraction for the rest of the class? Beggars belief.

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    Interesting debate though I feel the writers could do with having been involved with some state schools as parents, pupils or teachers, so as to write from a more informed perspective. Arguably, what the editor is putting forward here would not improve social mobility but worsen it. If you remove the so-called ‘more able’ students from the state schools (which I think we all know will come from middle class families not working class ones) all you are doing is perpetuating the idea that private schools have the most able students and so we quietly side-step the main question which is why education should be based on ability to pay. It also potentially makes state education worse because it removes the very parents and students who force the system to change and improve and contrary to what Carol says here, it has always been my experience that good students bring everyone up rather than the bad ones bringing others down (she also has a rather bizarre idea of what classroom assistants do but that’s another matter).

    I would like to question some of the assertions made here. Whilst it is true that only 55% of pupils are achieving the famed 5 GCSEs at A to C this proportion has risen every year for the last 21 years. Of course, if we were to reach a point of 70 or 80% of pupils reaching this level I rather suspect we would have a chorus of shouts saying that GCSEs were becoming too easy. You could also look at a different statistic, which is that in 1988 8.6% of students got the top grade whereas last year it was 20.7% and up until 1974, half of all pupils leaving school at 16 had no qualifications at all (under the system so nostalgically loved by MT’s readers it seems).

    There are many debates to be had about education and our views are mainly influenced by own own backgrounds and political viewpoints (and I don’t exclude myself from that) but I think what I am missing from the MT analysis of this question is some analysis of the role of management in relation to this. It also fails to address one of the key issues inherent in this, which is the way in which the structure of the economy has affected social mobility. What are the new skills bases required by the world of work and why are we not moving fast enough to recruit and train people in these new skills? This problem lies as much with the dinosaur age approaches to professional development, change and advancement in so many UK businesses as it does to what happens to people before they are 16.

    This is also a wider issue than the question of whether or not we can have more working class lawyers and doctors. It is to do with the elevated status that some professions have over others – it’s interesting that there have been very few commentators questioning the underlying basis of this debate which seems to be about moving people up or down a ladder. If we have a system which is so overtly unequal in terms of the rewards and benefits which different parts of people on that ladder receive, of course you are going to get people at the top of the ladder perpetuating their position and those of their decendents – it is a completely rational approach. What we need is to think a little more about opening up these worlds, recognising the contributions that different and diverse parts of society can bring and the value that is placed on a wider range of occupations than the traditional vested interests. This where I agree to some degree with what the editor says about the UK being worse than other parts of the Western World in that this country is especially entrenched in perpetuating certain aspects of the status quo – and I’m afraid Private Schools are very much part of this problem, not the solution.

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    Jonathan – I’m not sure you need to have gone to a grammar school to believe they played an important role in improving social mobility. Doesn’t the fact that mobility has gone backwards as grammar schools have disappeared suggest as much?

    I think Matthew was talking about education specifically as opposed to social mobility more generally, which is why he didn’t talk about skills in the workplace. But it’s also true that if the economy is creating more managerial and professional jobs in the future, it becomes even more important to resolve the problems with the secondary education system.

    As for your last point, it’s an admirable aim but how would you achieve it? By paying every profession a flat rate regardless of its economic/ market value? Doctors get paid more because relatively few people are capable of doing the job – that’s just not true of other professions. Take journalism, for instance…

    James (Web Ed)