Make the best available to all

4th August 1995 at 01:00
The subject of independent versus state education is encrusted with myths. The central myth, subscribed to by all parties, is that it is possible to develop a high-quality system of state education in a country where the richest, most successful and most influential people have nothing to do with it.

In the world as it is developing, I see no future for this country unless it learns to live not off its past but quite literally off its wits. That means high levels of education for all. Yet, if the apex of a society shuns the state system, how will it ever be possible to attain high standards there?

The Left would object that there are good schools in the state sector. Provide them with sufficient resources, the argument goes, and they will give the private schools a run for their money. Obviously there are some good schools in the state sector, notably in well-to-do areas. Yet to claim that the state system as a whole, properly financed, could challenge the private system on quality is self-delusion.

The reason lies in the misconceived philosophy of egalitarianism which, despite the Government's welcome attempts at reform, holds much of the state sector in its deadening grip. If our fundamental approach to education is flawed, we can have the best paid teachers in the world, wall-to-wall facilities and one-to-one teaching - and still produce mediocrity.

We must get away from the old debate. I am not advocating a return to the grammar schoolsecondary modern system; I advocate a new system of differing schooling for children with differing gifts, in which the former direct grant schools would have their place. State education is in desperate need of peaks of excellence. If they existed, the private sector would get a run for its money.

When Conservatives claim that private education is a matter of choice, they are producing the Right's mirror image of the Left's self-delusion about facilities and resources. Where is the choice for someone on Pounds 12,000 a year? In our traditional debates, it is at this point that the assisted places scheme is brought up. The truth is that many of the opposition's objections to the APS are grounded in fact. It is enormously expensive. I know of no evidence to show that the money goes chiefly to those in need.

Even for the bright working-class child, is it such cause for self-congratulation that we award scholarships to children to rescue them from the state sector? I can see why the independent schools like the scheme but shoring up our apartheid system of schooling by subsidising private establishments seems a poor philosophy of education at the end of the 20th century.

Voucher schemes are another form of evading the issue. The theoretical advantages are attractive, but the practical effects would be catastrophic. All that would happen is that the 7 per cent - the escapees from the state sector - would swell to some 20 per cent, as those who could afford it topped up their vouchers. The result would be that even more of the socially advantaged would have even less of an interest in where the nation was going, in education terms.

What is our aim? Do we want to end up like America, where the gulf between public and private widens by the year? Or do we want to aspire to the best continental models, where the good schools are state schools, open to all on the basis of talent, aptitude, hard work and intelligence?

In Britain, the best private schools have demanding teachers, small classes, adequate facilities and traditions of excellence, and have remained largely immune from the experiments that have proved the curse of the state sector. Nothing should be done to damage them, but everything should be done to open them up to the country.

This cannot be done by coercion. If it is done, it must be done voluntarily. A few years ago, the idea of first-rate private schools opting into the state sector would have seemed a pious hope. What has happened recently has changed all that. It is not just Manchester Grammar - I am talking of the potential for 100,000 places. What would be the reaction of the man in the street to the news that the most prestigious school in his area, closed to him for decades, was to be reopened to him free of charge? Undiluted approval. What is the Conservative response to the prospect? A strange reticence.

Malicious critics may wonder whether our hearts are in state education or in the preservation of privilege. Let us imagine for a moment that we showed enough imagination and resourcefulness to do that. Would Labour object on doctrinal grounds of opposition to selection? There are signs that the Opposition is edging up, slowly and crabwise, to the problem of quality. Whatever else he might be, the Leader of the Opposition does not give me the impression of being an unthinking educational dogmatist. It would be a sad day for the Conservatives if we were seen to pass the baton of educational innovation to the left.

George Walden announced last week that he would not seek re-election as Conservative MP for Buckingham because of his disenchantment with the parliamentary system, and its failure to deal with educational "apartheid". This is an edited version of a recent speech.

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