To them that hath more shall be given

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Fee-charging schools have found a champion. Appropriately enough he is a former head boy at Highgate, the prestigious north London public school, and he has made it his mission to consign to history the view that public schools are cruel, snobbish institutions designed to perpetuate the class system.

This makes him something of a hate figure in the Labour party, still largely composed as it is of quaint egalitarians who think that the children of the rich ought not to have a better or more prestigious education than those of the poor.

He has, however, a powerful sponsor, in the form of one of his oldest friends, a man who also knows for himself the benefits a public school education can bestow, having been at Fettes, a gothic pile of public school tradition in Edinburgh.

Were you to say: "Show me what benefits a public school education can bestow, Mr Clarke" (for such is our hero's name), he might well point out that his Highgate education won him a place at Cambridge. Not only that, but Fettes shoehorned his powerful sponsor, Mr Blair, into Oxford, a kindly and well-connected housemaster having pleaded on his behalf with the authorities.

Furthermore, Mr Blair is now Prime Minister, and Mr Clarke is Secretary of State for Education. He might add - but probably would not - that about half the students at Oxford and Cambridge come from the 7 to 8 per cent of the population which attended fee-charging schools. Mr Blair might point out that of the 10 holders of his office since 1945, he is the fifth to have attended a public school, and the seventh to have gone to Oxford.

The oddity is that Mr Clarke has been a member of the Labour party since the early 1970s, when its policy was to abolish fee-charging schools. He was also one of the party's key policy-makers when the policy changed in the 1980s, and it announced that its aim was to make state schools so good that only a snob would want to pay fees.

Under their tutelage the Labour party has travelled a long way. Mr Clarke, who pointedly refuses to attend National Union of Teachers' conferences, happily accepted an invitation to last month's independent schools conference, where he said: "I want to work with you. I want to break down the old-fashioned barriers between the independent and state sectors.

There's been a history of mistrust between us. I want to move our relationship to a different level."

His vision is of a two-way relationship. State schools will get public school methods. Public schools will get state money. Mr Clarke considers this a fair exchange. As soon as he was back at his desk, he was telling state schools to adopt a public school-style house system. In public schools these are often a means for older boys to bully younger ones.

As it happens, at Mr Clarke's alma mater, Highgate, they use their house system rather well, as a way of looking after their pupils and ensuring they find out about problems. If he were able to ensure that state schools copy the one he knows, it would be fine - except for one thing.

Highgate uses staff intensively. The system works only because there are enough teachers to provide pastoral care to each pupil. This is possible because the school's fees are high and its endowments considerable. The Secretary of State is telling state schools to do something for which he is not willing to find the money.

He also told state schools to keep children inside during lunch hour, to stop them "rampaging through shopping centres". Where I live, in the north London borough of Barnet, he has forced schools to make dozens of teachers redundant, so it is a bit rich to put further strain on those left by telling them to act as cut-price childminders.

He has also found a way to bung hundreds of thousands of pounds from the ever-tighter schools budget to fee-charging schools. Last month he announced the expenditure of a further pound;1.4 million on "independentstate school links", bringing the total spent on this scheme so far to pound;6m. To them that hath shall be given.

At the risk of getting the damning label "old-fashioned" stuck on me, I still think he should reserve his praise and our money for the state schools which educate almost everyone but a moneyed elite.

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