"The truth is, if there isn't a school at all, how can you really object to someone setting up a private one?"
So muttered a veteran unionist in response to the question of the rise of low-cost private schools across the developing world.
The aside came in the aftermath of a discussion this morning at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on whether there is a moral case for the private sector in education.
The panel discussion featured John Bangs, a British consultant to the OECD and Education International, the global union umbrella group.
It is, he said, a moral imperative of government to provide a good local school for all local communities, which is ultimately what parents want. They want this far more than the creation of choice in a quasi-market.
Mr Bangs believes such local state schools are perhaps the last true moral instructions. And their teachers make moral decisions every day.
The question, he suggested, was whether the private sector was capable of living up to this moral standard.
Also on the panel was Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic nemesis of New York teaching unions and founder of the Harlem Learning Zone. Canada argued that the city's public schools system had failed his local community so completely that there was no option but to look to other providers. The non-state sector had stepped in when the moral mission of government schools had failed.
Later in the day, outgoing Eton College head Tony Little was interviewed about the future of education, at one stage touching on the same issue.
Ultimately, he said, it would be great if state education became so successful that there was no need for an independent sector. Of course, his point was that this was many years away; a pipedream, even.
But nonetheless, the point is that Mr Little doesn't believe that there is a moral case for independent schools per se.
In their way, both the head of Eton – surely one of the most unashamedly elitist institutions anywhere in the world – and our friendly unionist were talking about the same thing. That in the end it is all about quality education.
Provide a good quality school with excellent outcomes and parents and students will be happy. Everything else is just detail.
Incidentally, Bangs and Little would have found common cause on another of education's perennial issues. The Eton head explained that the school is not considered to be fulfilling its mission by many parents if it came top of the league tables. They do not pay for Eton to be an exam factory. This, of course, would be music to the ears of many a progressive educationalist.
So there you have it: the strange case of the Eton head, the unionist and their common cause.
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