Private superiority remains a pain without equal

4th September 2009 at 01:00

One of the saddest things I've heard said about education over the years was by someone who attended a private school. She said to me: "Oh, my parents cared enough about my education to send me to a good school."

Encapsulated in that remark is so much of what is wrong with the way educational provision is arranged in the UK. Therein is the mistaken belief that private education is inherently of a better quality than that offered through the state system. This perceived superiority, of course, is continually encouraged in the media and ensures that parents continue to buy into the private sector.

The educational journey that children in the state system make is often far greater than the one undertaken by their counterparts in the private sector. Most do not commence their education with the same advantages. They have a steeper climb to make with far more barriers in their way; the wider the social gap, the greater the disadvantage is likely to be.

The new private companies setting up schools in England are very keen to advertise their examination successes as testimony of their apparent superiority. If, on the other hand, they had to provide education for all the children within a local authority, where many are still living in poverty in homes that are very disadvantaged, their results may be less impressive. Increasingly, it appears that children entering the state system in the early years present a much higher level of difficulty than in the past. The task facing state school teachers is immense. At least since devolution in Wales we have been able to stave off some of these worst systemic practices that are blighting state education in England.

The existence of a private education system alongside a state one ensures, as in the pre-universal education days, that some sections of society receive a more privileged opportunity. Invariably, the private system, for the most part, is far better resourced than the more impoverished, state- run alternative. The inequalities of old are perpetuated; more students from the private sector obtain a place at a `top' university and their career prospects are greatly enhanced.

In the 18th century John Dickinson, the American politician, wrote in his poem The Liberty Song: "By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall." Certainly, in those days our society was deeply divided along class lines with a huge discrepancy in terms of the educational opportunities available. Many Welsh people were at least taught to read in Griffith Jones' circulating schools. These divisions continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries despite the introduction of universal education, and at the beginning of the 21st century an inequality of opportunity remains.

The recent report issued by Labour MP Alan Milburn, Unleashing Aspirations: The Final Report Of The Panel On Fair Access To The Professions, confirmed that privately educated children dominate the professions. Social exclusivity, instead of decreasing as more and more people enter higher education, seems to have increased in recent years.

Post-Second World War reforms such as opening up grammar schools, raising the school-leaving age and the development of comprehensive schools only partially redressed the imbalance and in some ways served to strengthen the divisions. Offering opportunities to children from poorer backgrounds in private schools has a similar effect. They are just part of the "hiving off" process described in the two volumes of Raymond Williams' novel People Of The Black Mountains, where the more able children are taken away from their family backgrounds to assist the ruling elite directly.

We've never had a truly comprehensive system of education where everyone could be given the same opportunity to achieve their potential. We've only had comprehensive schools that could not change the face of educational opportunity on their own. In some parts of the UK the deeply divisive grammar and secondary-modern school system prevails.

Surely, only when private schools, along with state-run grammar and secondary moderns, have been abolished will we be able to develop a system whereby all our children are given an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential and to be treated equally. This should be the right of every child.

A government that denies this right is not only short-changing large swathes of the population but is also failing to ensure that the nation as a whole is thriving and achieving its full potential. So much talent is wasted in this way and the country suffers as a result. Each individual has a talent and everyone's talents should be fully developed. Every member of society has something worth while to offer, not just the social elite.

Do we want a society mired by social division or do we want a society with everyone evolving together for the common good?

A nation can only be socially richer and culturally healthier when all the talents of all its citizens are fully developed with everyone being afforded equal respect. In all probability the country would benefit economically, too.

Rhydwyn Ifans is a supply teacher with more than 30 years' experience in England and Wales.

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