Elitism for all - or not at all

23rd December 2011 at 00:00

It was Michael Gove who made me rethink my views on elitism. In my formative years, like the rest of Britain, I watched transfixed as the first major terrorist incident of our lives played out on television before us. It was 1980 and 26 people had been taken hostage at the Iranian Embassy in London. By the sixth day, when things appeared to be turning grimmer, a series of explosions shattered the tension and balaclavaed figures dressed not unlike the man in the Milk Tray adverts appeared on balconies and brought the hostage crisis to a swift and controversial end.

These, we were told in tones of hushed adulation, were the SAS - the crack force of the British military. It was to an elite we turned in times of trouble. The message was clear: elitism was good.

Later, in a not entirely right-wing university department, I took a course in educational studies. Here I learnt how an elite group of individuals - less than 7 per cent of the British population - was educated apart from the rest of us in order to later take their place as the rulers of our green and pleasant land. It all sounded a bit like George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which Napoleon's pack of specially bred dogs is kept apart from the other plodding inhabitants of Manor Farm, ready to be unleashed to rip out the throats of reluctant sheep. This was a different view of the world from my sheltered Daily Express-reading upbringing. Now elitism was bad.

So, thank you to the education secretary for manfully stepping in and updating my education. Elitism, it appears, is brilliant. According to the Daily Mail, the secretary of state recently gave "an impassioned celebration of elitism". Citing the growing volume of academy conversions and free schools, he said: "1,400 is not enough. To take reform to the next stage I want to enlist more unashamedly elitist institutions in helping to entrench independence and extend excellence in our state sector. I want universities like Cambridge, and more of our great public schools, to help run state schools."

I hate to be wilfully controversial, but, in the spirit of social mobility, I would like to see some of our great state schools run some of our private schools. Given the fact that many independent schools select their students through an entry exam, teach them in much smaller groups and benefit from a pretty universal level of parental aspiration, I have a sneaking sense that many could be doing better.

I suspect there may even be a few coasting schools among them and some that - if we looked at a mechanistic formula of selection and per-capita spending - might seem like abysmal value for money.

Parents probably choose them not because they provide any more academic rigour than the local school - let's call it Our Lady of the Broken Windows - but because they have other alluring trappings, such as a sense of manoeuvring your child into more favoured social circles.

On reflection, I shan't start waving a banner about the joys of elitism. Curmudgeonly and bad at maths, I would like elitism for the 100 per cent of students I work with - that is, top-notch opportunities and aspirations for all of them.

So, at the fag end of a turbulent year, we should make a resolution to stop relying on out-of-date stereotypes and polarising cliches.

Mr Gove: I will if you will.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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