Scholls: Is This the Answer? the Great Education Debate: A Radical Look at Britain's Learning Problems Ends with a Blueprint for the Future

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Byline: GEORGE WALDEN

VIRTUALLY everyone in Britain - of whatever political persuasion - is agreed that, taken as a whole, our educational system is failing. Former Conservative education minister George Walden is convinced of it. On Saturday in the Daily Mail he launched the first part of a provocative debate in which he claimed that the existence of so many excellent private schools has a damaging impact on the far-larger state sector. Mr Walden - himself educated at state primary, followed by direct grant school, then Cambridge - went on to argue that there would be no impetus to change the system as long as the children of the moneyed and professional classes had no experience of the state system. Today, in the concluding part of his devastating analysis, he offers his own solution. Many would say it is a fanciful one, but no one can chose to ignore this debate.

PICTURE what would happen if, one fine morning, the top 7 per cent of society woke up to find that private schools were no longer there: that they had vanished, with all their uniforms and escutcheons and playing fields and jolly dorms, from the face of the Earth.

No imagination is necessary to visualise how parents, deprived of their escape routes from state education, would behave.

So imagine a second improbable circumstance: that the ports were sealed, with immigration officials under instructions to apply the same rigour to keeping the British in as to keeping foreigners out.

The officials would be ordered to maintain a special watch for overloaded Volvos and BMWs and Mercedes and Jaguars containing agitated-looking couples accompanied by dejected children answering to names like Harriet and Toby.

`Sorry, the port's closed,' they would say firmly but courteously.

`Welcome to your own country,' some might add with a sardonic smile, arms pointing imperiously up the Dover Road.

Harriet and Toby in the same schools as Jason and Tracy? How would our 7 pc - including, as they do, a disproportionate number of the movers and shakers of society - react?

They would move and shake as never before. Indignation would inflate them till they assumed the proportions of wrathful gods. Knowing the power of the upper middle classes, they would waste no time lamenting their fate. There would be instant action. Overnight the 7 pc would form a Committee for the Improvement of State Education.

Being intelligent folk, they would go straight to the source of the problem, bypassing institutions from which little was to be hoped - such as Parliament. Scornful of a political process that had allowed things to get to the state they were, our middle-class gods would cast aside democratic scruple and resort to direct action... Day one was devoted to a reform of the reigning philosophy of education, involving brief and purgative visits to the educational institutes and teacher training establishments. The university authorities sheltering them under their wings, more from habit than necessity, proved only too anxious to oblige. Nervous of accusations of political interference, previously they had had little to do with educational studies. Now, however, things had changed.

Having no refuge for their children in the private sector any more than the visiting Committee itself, and realising that if state schools did not improve dramatically the quality of their universities would be in question, the authorities co-operated energetically in the putsch.

Oxbridge academics volunteered in droves, together with some of the most distinguished minds in the country, to work on the Royal Commission on teacher training which our Committee set up on the spot: report to be delivered by 9.30 the following morning.

By noon on day two a new educational philosophy had been adopted. It had been a hard morning's work. The new principles guiding state education were arrived at swiftly and by novel procedures. …