Divided we fail?

18th December 1998 at 00:00

Recently I accompanied a class of eight-year-olds on a trip to the National Gallery. The teacher had prepared them well. When we arrived a small boy confidently took me to da Vinci's cartoon and explained that cartoons weren't just the Simpsons or in comics. Another shrieked with delight on discovering Van Gogh's Sunflowers "in real life" and yet another said that on the whole he thought he preferred Turner to Constable.I was told, in gory detail, the story of St Sebastian, Belshazzar's Feast and the origins of the Trojan Wars, all accounts prompted by pictures they recognised. What more could you want?

Well, apparently, a great deal judging by the way that this school is eschewed by those who live in its catchment. The school, used in a BT ad to represent the cosy image of a British primary, is nestled in the corner of a more well-heeled part of a west London borough. If all those who lived in the catchment sent their children there, it would have an almost exclusively professional intake. But they do not. More than 50 per cent send their children to the vast array of private schools on offer. Within a half a mile there are four, within a mile there are at least four more. Many families travel even further, some taking up to a 12-mile round trip through London's rush hour, adding to the traffic congestion themselves. The question is why?

Part of the answer lies in the reading of the league tables. Although all these parents are quite capable of understanding that the tables do not compare like with like,they cannot help feeling that one must have higher standards than the other, even though their better judgment might say otherwise. And what parent, who can afford it, even if they believe in state schooling and see private schools as divisive, cannot help but be tempted by the offer of the best for their child?

At heart, moves to merge private and state schools, by looking to the private sector for lessons to be learned, accept this basic premise. For all the talk of value-added tables to demonstrate what a good job many state schools are doing, there is still a deferential urge, based on its pre-eminent position to look to the independent sector for advice. The process really is not two-way. State schools are bound by the national curriculum and its testing regime, the private sector is not. Apart from their statutory position as independent, there is a prevailing sense that private schools do not need it.

This is because at both policy and parental level we persist in confusing the excellence of the pupils with the excellence of the education they receive. Until we begin to unravel this myth we will never solve the privatestate conundrum. The actual quality of education in the school I described is as good, if not better than many of its private counterparts, but its intake is considerably more varied and for many parents, this is the crucial factor. So we need to create a more level playing field to force our attention on the excellence of the teaching and learning, rather than the quality of the pupil.

Several creative suggestions about blurring divisions between the sectors do exist - allowing schools which were direct grant to come back into the state system; introducing voucher schemes, and abolishing the charitable status of many private-sector schools unless they start acting like charities and take pupils who cannot afford to attend. This last measure would have significant repercussions as the charitable status of these schools keeps the fees lower than they would otherwise be.

Yet the problem with any one of these measures is that, to date, they rely on selection and so will do nothing to dispel the impression that private schools are better. If, however, like their state-sector counterparts, these schools had to take say, one third or their intake from the local catchment, irrespective of academic ability, in order to qualify for charitable status, or for a local authority grant, a different picture might emerge.

This is not anti-elitist. I wish to see able and academic children thrive in school, but I do not wish them to do it at the expense of everyone else,cocooned in an environment where they really do never see how the other half lives. Good primary schools and good comprehensives achieve this balance every day of the school year. They are spaces where children from different backgrounds and of different abilities learn together. And until we recognise that this is the excellence for which we must strive, and create an environment where there are no distractions, the state sector will remain, in the eyes of the influential, the Cinderella to the private sector's Prince Charming.

Bethan Marshall is a lecturer in education at King's College, London


How about this for the most stupid comment on education in quite a while:

"The class system has never recovered from Rab Butler's Education Act of 1944, and its condition is now terminal". So says Tony Blair's mentor, Eric Anderson, former Headmaster off Eton and Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford.

It's difficult to imagine anything further from the truth. One in five seven- year-olds in London state schools score zero in reading tests. The best state schools in deprived areas achieve GCSE scores which are just a third of those in more advantaged areas. And worse still, the quality divide between state and private schools is stronger than at any other time since 1945. Effectively today, money buys a good education, and the absence of it denies one. Whatever differences Bethan Marshall and myself may have - and they are substantial - about our approach to independent schools, we both start from the same point. The educational apartheid which infects Britain like no other country is deeply damaging.

But that, I'm afraid, is where we part company. When I see something that works, my approach is not to ask how best to destroy it, but to see how to inculcate its success elsewhere. And that is certainly true with regard to private schools.

Let's first dispose of the idea that private schools don't work; that somehow they trick stupid middle class parents into forking out large sums when they have already paid for a perfectly decent state education.

So that's why in every league table - in every construction of every league table, and in every conceivable objective analysis - they consistently outperform their state equivalents, is it? Sure, not all state schools are bad, and not all private ones good. But as George Walden puts it: "In our culture of evasion we cling to the exceptions for dear life, and treat them as not proving the rule, but as casting doubt on it. The statement that the grass is green could be equally well contested on the grounds that we have all seen yellow or brown patches."

Then there's the other red herring - that by focusing on a sector which educates "only" 7 per cent of pupils we ignore the "real issues" in education. Behind that "only 7 per cent" lies the fact that almost the entire upper professional and managerial class - however its members were themselves educated - have decamped from state to private schools. The 1991 census identified 740,000 school-aged children from such parents, who can be set alongside the 610,000 children at private schools. Not all of the first group are at private school, and not all of the latter are British. But it is clear that the overwhelming majority who can afford to leave the state system do so. Even more importantly, this is not one class replicating its advantages through its children: the most extensive survey of parents, conducted in 1993 by Mori, showed that a majority of private school parents had not been educated in the private sector.

Then there's the idea that private schools can only do it because they are so richly funded. The recent report by Dr John Marks, director of the Education Research Centre, should put the lie to that red herring. Using figures from the Audit Commission made available for the first time, Marks shows how much money is wasted. Islington, Lambeth and Southwark spend Pounds 3,000 a year per pupil and manage to get five good GCSE passes for a scandalous 22 per cent of their pupils. The average teaching cost per pupil in the independent sector, however, was Pounds 3,129 in the academic year 1996-97.

So what do we do about this? Proposals to restrict the use of charitable status and impose VAT on school fees miss the point. In a country where there are too few good schools; what sort of fool sets out to destroy those that work because they don't like the social class of the pupils?

What we should be doing is finding ways of bringing private and state sectors together. One of the most damaging pieces of educational reform this century was the abolition of Direct Grant Schools, which provided a bridge between the two sectors. The re-introduction of such a scheme should be back on the agenda.

But what we really need is something that preserves the spirit and independence of the private sector but opens it up to anyone, regardless of wealth. And that can only mean the voucher.

Stephen Pollard is a columnist at The Express and a co-author of A Class Act: the myth of Britain's classless society

Next week: religious schools

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