Less icing on the cake for private schools

21st January 2005 at 00:00
I hope the heads of fee-charging schools enjoyed their Christmas. But I trust they ate no Christmas cake. I trust, too, that they suffered no plumbing or electrical disasters. Or if they did, that they found chanting passages from Wordsworth or referring to Einstein's laws of relativity were sufficient to deal with the emergency.

The heads - or at least the Independent Schools Joint Council that speaks on their behalf - are in a fury because they no longer come top of the secondary-school league tables. This, they argue, is unfair because schools are now allowed to count pupils' success in vocational exams. They picked out cake decoration for particular scorn but would no doubt be equally dismissive of courses in plumbing or electrical maintenance. They believe the league tables should count only exams in academic subjects such as English literature and physics, "on whose importance", a spokesman said, "everyone is agreed".

I imagine this spokesman, as he drives home of a winter evening, worries not about burst pipes, but about being confronted with a particularly impenetrable chapter from Finnegan's Wake. I think of him going to the Yellow Pages in a desperate search for literary scholars, and being upset when he finds only long lists of unimportant plumbers.

Fee-charging schools regard it as their divine right to top the exam results' tables and to take the lion's share of Oxford and Cambridge places. If they fail, they cry foul: the marking must have been rigged, the state schools must be promoting soft options, or doctrinaire Marxist dons must be penalising applicants for their posh accents. You can't blame them.

They are in business and, if state schools got ahead, the customers would ask why they are paying fees at all.

But I hope this special pleading is ignored. I hope particularly that we can drop the idea that vocational subjects are less important or demanding than pure academic subjects. The English elite has always tried to maintain a very narrow definition of what is worth learning, and has admitted the value of new areas of study only grudgingly.

Until the 19th century, theology, classics, mathematics and medicine were regarded as the only fit subjects for university study. Modern foreign languages, English literature, and law were not taught at universities until after the foundation of University College London in 1828. Until well into the 20th century, most fee-charging schools would have no truck with science. Engineering struggled to win acceptance at Oxford and Cambridge.

Business studies was regarded as insufficiently rigorous by the older universities and by most fee-charging schools until about 30 years ago; nobody dare call it a soft option now because there is so much money behind it. Media studies, however, is still widely mocked. Yet the growth of media power is the most dramatic change in the country during the past 40 years.

We remain sniffy about the most straightforward practical skills. That is why we are so short of skilled workers and why you can never find a plumber.

The fee-charging schools say the league tables have become meaningless.

They have always been meaningless because, hitherto, the schools that could select pupils according to academic ability and parental background were bound to outperform others. Now, the league tables are at least being put to constructive use - giving a much-needed morale boost to state schools, and persuading us to take vocational subjects more seriously.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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