'Seldon’s proposal reinforces a myth: only by paying money do you get a reputable education'

21st January 2014 at 12:00

Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, writes:

The Day of Rest, it seems, has become the Day of Jest.

Hardly a Sunday goes by without some increasingly laughable education story elbowing its way onto the newspaper front pages and then dropping onto our unsuspecting doormats.

Thus another weekend blast of phony debate gets initiated.

The rationale, if that’s not too grand a term, seems to be to use Sunday newspapers to float an idea, then to step back and watch where it goes. Too often the proposal hangs around far too long; other times, it gets flushed quietly away with the rest of the weekend’s news detritus.

You can be fairly sure that within the crowd-pleasing virtues of any given week’s educational wacky wheeze will be one of the 3 Rs: "radical", "rigorous" and "reform".

The most hilariously madcap of all such Sunday announcements was the proposed scrapping of the "failing" GCSE back in September 2012. This was the monster of Sunday floaters.

A bold new qualification was to be hatched in place of the discredited examination, and all the soppy stuff like tiering, coursework and modular exams would be banished forever.

And the name of this shimmering new qualification that had right-wing commentators wetting themselves in glee? The English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC).

How we laughed.

From the soulless hinterlands of our childhoods, some of us recalled a shortlived but entertaining children’s television programme called Emu’s Broadcasting Company. This was the original and unassailable EBC.

Once seen, this programme meant that the shambolic EBC proposal was doomed. No one surely would take the EBC seriously – especially those responsible for examinations.

Yet still the Sunday stories keep surfacing.

This weekend’s came from an unexpected source. Anthony Seldon is the high-profile master of Wellington College and there is much to admire about his work. His school is genuinely groundbreaking in an education sector not noted for its sense of fiery innovation.

Dr Seldon appears to be able to knock out entire books and articles faster than it takes Liberal Democrats to set up a committee to take a vote on whether to make a decision about something.

But his idea this weekend – surfacing in the Sunday Times and outlined by the man himself in a bleary-eyed BBC Radio 5 interview – was that middle-class parents on an income of more than £80,000 per annum should be expected to pay for state education.

Now at this point let me declare my credentials. I feel I can speak on behalf of middle-class parents. As someone who once proudly boasted that I was the first resident of York to buy sundried tomatoes, I can honestly say I feel their pain.

And looking at the proposal that we should be paying for our children’s state education, we are inclined to respond that we already are: it’s called paying taxes.

Naively perhaps, many of us cling to an old-fangled notion that we pay income tax in order to have things we appreciate, like roads, hospitals and, er, schools.

As soon as parents start paying the proposed £20,000 to send their child to the neighbourhood comprehensive – let’s call it Our Lady of the Broken Windows – then many of them are likely to pause a moment. "Hang on," they’ll say, "for this money I could be buying a bit of exclusivity and shoehorning my child into a world of smaller class sizes and shinier blazers."

Dr Seldon’s proposal would reinforce the unspoken myth still at large in England that a great local neighbourhood school isn’t a possibility – that only by paying money can you get your child a reputable education.

Thousands of us know differently. So, contrarian that I appear to be, I’d dispute Dr Seldon's thesis. Beneath it is the sense of an independent system that finds itself on the ropes, mired in financial difficulties and too many scandals, and in increasing need of self-justification.

Its remaining allure for some parents is that sense of buying a place in some exclusive club from which to peer out at the rest of us. As David Kynaston brilliantly argued last year in – of all places – the Daily Telegraph, the independent school system is the one remaining block on true social mobility in this country.

The real quest for educational excellence needs to be in our state schools – just as it is in those international jurisdictions whose standards we aspire to. That’s where our energies should go.

So forgive me for not whipping out the hat for parental contributions or rallying the PTA to cough up cash.

Instead, my mission is to get those parents who may be wavering between sending their child to the local state school or to the local independent to trust in us, in those who believe passionately in the comprehensive ideal because of the way it prepares students for society as it really is.

We want those parents – despite the endless scaremongering about our supposedly failing state schools – to recognise how potential Oxbridge graduates can sit happily in tutor time alongside those taking motor vehicle maintenance, with both benefiting from the experience, yet with both receiving tailored provision.

We want those parents to see that in the best comprehensives we provide orchestras, choirs, school productions, Duke of Edinburgh award schemes, debating societies and all those other rich facets of a proud English education system.

It’s what we do, day in, day out. The difference is that some of us believe that these activities, alongside good exam results borne out of real learning rather than cramming, should be the birthright of the many and not just of the fee-paying few.

We think it’s what we pay our taxes for.



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