Education: The Great Betrayal; STARTING TODAY: A FORMER EDUCATION MINISTER'S DEVASTATING ANALYSIS OF THE SCANDAL THAT IS OUR SCHOOLS SYSTEM
Byline: GEORGE WALDEN
WHETHER on the Left or the Right, there is one thing that unites virtually all Britons: the belief that something is radically wrong with our education system. George Walden, a former Tory minister for higher education, has no doubt that this is so. Educated at the primary school on his Dagenham council estate, he moved on to a direct-grant school, then Cambridge. Here he presents a devastating, if uncomfortable, personal analysis of what's wrong with our schools, and what to do about it. Agree with his conclusions or not, you cannot ignore them.
SOME YEARS ago, a
senior Cabinet minister asked me with genuine puzzlement why I was so concerned about education. The question surprised me so much, I was unable to give an answer. What took me aback was its ingenuousness. The minister was exceedingly well educated. Most of his friends, I would guess had been to excellent private schools. As for the remaining 93 per cent in the state sector, plans were in hand to improve things for them, were they not? So why the fuss? Years later, the 93 pc are still locked into a second-class system of education. As more of them wake up to the fact, the fuss seems to be spreading. We are approaching an election in which education will be to the fore: both John Major and Tony Blair claim to be passionate about it. Yet, while the country agonises about what should be done, the most affluent, articulate and influential people in society will do what they always do when education is debated: having made their private arrangements, they will stand aloof. In no other European country do the moneyed and professional classes reject pretty well out of hand the system of education used by the overwhelming majority. In no modern democracy except Britain is tribalism in education so entrenched that, with a few notable exceptions, MPs for the two main parties send their children to different schools. In a sphere which touches on every aspect of life, personal factors are not just relevant but central. Education is less a matter of politics than of human motivation.
Hence the passion stirred by Harriet Harman's decision to send her child to a selective school outside her local education authority.
This degree of self-interest is greater than elsewhere. Conservative politicians deplore the egalitarian excesses in state education - child centred teaching, mixed-ability classes, low aspirations and the rest-yet had their children been subjected to such experiments, it is scarcely conceivable that they would ever have taken root in our schools. As it is, an experiment which even Labour admits has damaged many of those it was supposed to help, has been allowed to run its course for 30 years. When it comes to education, Britain does not play as a team. Devil take the hindmost would be a more accurate motto, and the Devil usually does.
The history of education in
Britain over recent decades is one in which preoccupations with class and sectional interest have been apparent at every stage.
It is scarcely imaginable that the Conservative Party would have allowed the majority of grammar schools to be closed as easily as it did, if the children of its leadership and backbenchers had attended them in any numbers.
HAD that been so, it would have exerted itself powerfully in the search for solutions: ways of making the discredited 11-plus more equitable, improving the prestige of the secondary moderns and, above all, finding the resources for a system of high-quality technical education. What happened was very different. With minimal resistance, the Conservatives-including Mrs Thatcher during her speU as Education Secretary, from 1970 to 1974-allowed the comprehensives a virtual monopoly of the system.
However loud their objections against 'levelling down', when it came to the point their self interest was not sufficiently engaged to struggle against the tide. …