Magazine article The Spectator

The Lesson We Can Learn

Magazine article The Spectator

The Lesson We Can Learn

Article excerpt

CONSTANCE has just returned from a school day-trip to inspect some Gallo-- Roman ruins near Aubechies. At the time of writing, Guy is still away in Eupen, near the German border, for his week of autumnal classes vertes, during which he is to `s'emerveiller de nature' and `discover silence', sleeping for five nights in a log cabin that he and his classmates have erected themselves. Connie is an English child of two and a half. Guy, Anglo-Belgian, is four.

Don't get me wrong. This is not about paedophilia or precocity. Their mothers couldn't have been happier (their only qualms concerned the lack of seat belts on the buses and the regulation hint of Stella Artois on the drivers' breath). No, the point of these vignettes is to illustrate a reality that English parents, many struggling to meet school fees that are rising by 6.3 per cent annually, may find disturbing.

These two moppets are both enrolled in Belgian state schools, part of an entire parallel universe of education that exists almost everywhere in Europe but Britain. Guy's and Connie's two schools are not only free; they are also the kind of schools to which you would be delighted to send your children.

Imagine a society where parents do not crucify themselves with anxiety about not `doing the best by their child' if they send them to the local comprehensive, or guilt if they opt to go private - a selfish but understandable choice given that 92 of the top 100 schools in the country, as determined by A-level results, are independent. Imagine a society where people pay more in tax and social security but are excused the obligation of shelling out vast sums to ensure their child makes it to a top university (state schools in Britain educate 93 per cent of the pupils, produce 67 per cent of the necessary qualifications, but still get only 48 per cent of the places).

Imagine a society where no one drones on about schools at dinner parties. This is not Utopia. This is the norm across Europe.

`The advantage for those who can afford private education, and the disadvantage for those who cannot, has no parallel in any other advanced country,' says Peter Lempl, founder of the Sutton Trust, the aim of which is to open up `elite education' in the UK.

So why has Britain alone made such a horlicks of it? Strangely enough, it doesn't seem to be that we spend too little on education, as a nation. We spend more on our education than Germany, the Netherlands and Japan.

The answer seems to be this: we are not the only country in Europe which has `private' schools but we are the only one that has an established, competitive network of independent schools for which parents are privileged to pay out of taxed income. No other country has a comparable private sector, for the simple reason that in most other EU countries although there is some sort of `private' sector (which means state-subsidised and independently run), this is dwarfed by the efficient monolith of a centralised state system.

As Philip Mende, a Berliner working at the British embassy, tells me, `a fee-paying school such as you find in England would be seen as elitist in Germany, where the elites collapsed after two world wars and these schools collapsed with them. None of the parents would now support such a system.'

There is a different philosophy, a different ideology here. Schooling in most other northern European countries is designed to promote egalite, while the independent sector in Britain exists, in part, to perpetuate an elite. The proportion of Law Lords, bishops, ambassadors, company directors, chairmen of merchant banks, medical consultants and so on who have not been to public school and Oxbridge is still pretty meagre, as A Class Act, by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard, recently documented.

It would be facile to suggest that all is utterly democratic in Europe - in Paris parents will kill to send their children to the state Lycee Henri IV in the cinquieme but, on the whole, the elite is proud to send its offspring to the same primary schools as its chauffeurs, poor immigrants and cleaning ladies. …

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