‘It’s public schoolboys and girls wot won them. Social mobility hasn’t just seized up, it’s gone into reverse; state schools’ lack of ambition betrays our children’.


Image courtesy of ahisgett via flickr.com ©©

According to the Duke of Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Fast forward almost exactly two hundred years, shift focus to the Olympics, really just sublimated warfare after all, and the only thing that’s changed is that Eton is actually one of the battlefields. It’s public, ie private, schoolboys and girls wot won it.

Half Britain’s medallists at Beijing went to private schools. Our gold medallists this time started with the rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning (Millfield and Gordonstoun, respectively), the shooter, Peter Wilson (Millfield again) and Sir Chris Hoy (George Watson’s, Edinburgh).  “Wholly unacceptable”, trumpeted the chairman of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan (Monmouth, in case you wondered)..”one of the worst statistics in British sport”. Sentiments echoed by the Prime Minister (Eton, of course).

There are two things to be said about this. First, it’s not just the private sector’s better facilities or the insane sale of state school playing fields. State schoolchildren have been crippled by the anti-competitive ethos – nobody can win, because nobody must be allowed to lose – not to mention state school teachers’ famous reluctance to do more than they think they’re paid for.  (Private schoolchildren spend twice as much time playing sport than state schoolchildren).

The second is that it doesn’t matter. Sport’s a sideshow, a distraction.

What’s really important is how the privately educated are tightening their hold on most of the commanding heights of British life. Social mobility hasn’t just seized up, it’s gone into reverse.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove -Robert Gordon’s Institute (scholarship, though, and as the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish merchant he’s more Moses basket than top drawer) -pointed out that not only are most of the cabinet privately educated, but so are many of many of Labour’s senior figures – Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, for instance. . A third of the House of Commons went to independent schools.

Only 7% of our children go to these schools but 88% of our senior judges came from them, along with half the country’s barristers.

This proportion is rising. For instance, in 1988, 59% of the partners at Britain’ five biggest law firms were privately educated; now it’s 71%.

The same is true of most of the professions. A third of students studying to be doctors and dentists now come from the independent sector. The arts are dominated by them – theatre, cinema, even pop music.  Comics -McIntyre, Baddiel, Ianucci, Armstrong, Mitchell. The BBC is a private school old boys and girls’ association. Most of our newspapers are edited by them – even the Daily Mirror and that scourge of privilege, the Guardian, which has been edited by public schoolboys for the last 60 years.

This is not, or not just, entrenched privilege.  As a broad generalization, private schools have better qualified teachers, smaller classes ( half the size, on average) and a more disciplined, achieving ethos. They certainly get better results.  More straight As at A level than all the comprehensives put together. Often in harder subjects, too.

Gerrymandering the system to push less achieving state schoolchildren ahead of their more successful private school counterparts is not the answer.  Levelling up is.

Grammar schools gave poorer, bright children unlimited opportunities and changed the face of British society.  For more than thirty years, 10, Downing Street was occupied by people who went to state schools, Harold Wilson to John Major.  The few grammar schools that remain do as well as the best private schools.

Selection works for bright children. It surely could be done more flexibly than the once-and-for-all 11+.

Perhaps it’s simply not  possible to provide a different education for the less academic that is equally worthwhile and pushes them to realize their potential – though other
countries seem to do it.

Things are chaging in the existing state system, but not fast or far enough.  Their lack of
ambition betrays our children, particularly the cleverest.  A recent survey found that less than half the teachers in state secondary schools would advise their brightest pupils to try for Oxford or Cambridge; a tragedy to haunt us long after the Olympic triumphs are forgotten.


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