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Primary Education News
News Education: we all lose when we separate our children at the school gate | Will Hutton
If more schools are converted to academies, state pupils will be better equipped to compete with their privileged peers
Last week, I was invited to give year 13 students at a comprehensive school their awards for excellence. The headmistress explained that finding something to celebrate in every student represented her school's educational philosophy. Far from "everyone having prizes", every human being alive had a quality: it was teachers' task to find it – and celebrate it.
It also, she said, came with a handsome payback. A culture in which every student knew he or she was respected was also one in which every student respected the school back. Graffiti and bad conduct went down; participation and application went up. I could see the evidence with my own eyes.
Her school and her pupils are inspiring. For example, special needs children are genuinely integrated into the life of the school, which gives it a special flavour. The kids receiving the rewards were fantastic, full of hope and enthusiasm. Yet the edge was taken off my pleasure at the whole occasion by my knowledge of the chronic unfairnesses of British society.
Very few local upper-middle-class families send their children to this inclusive, well-run, aspirational school full of good humour, half of whose sixth form go on to university. They ferry them miles away to be privately educated, where they will mix with their own, unsullied by contact with – as they see it but never say – Britain's hoi polloi. What the average £12,000 private day fees are buying (around £27,000 for boarders) is in essence the chance for their kids to leapfrog the ones to whom I gave the awards. They buy their children segregation and advantage, shaking their heads sadly that the local state school is not good enough for their very special children.
Everyone knows the unfairness of the British private school system; few politicians and even fewer commentators dare discuss it. They will be dismissed as apologists for statism, social engineering, low educational standards and championing the politics of envy while denying choice. Britain's private school industry is now very large, educating more than half-a-million children. Which politician wants to alienate so many voters and our overwhelmingly centre-right press that support it to the hilt?
Yet last week, Lord Adonis, ex-schools minister and apostle of academies, ventured into the minefield. "It is seriously disabling for students going to exclusive fee-paying schools that they see so little of society," he told the Brighton College educational conference. "They mix in a very narrow social medium. They don't, for the most part, meet the most of the rest of society, including those who don't have parents of substantial means. If what we want is a one-nation society, it is not good for them and it is not good for wider society."
It is a good argument, but aimed more at the wider society than those in the "narrow social medium". After all, private education's capacity to deliver is based precisely on its social exclusivity; surrender that and you surrender everything. It might not be obvious to the parents of David Cameron, Boris Johnson or Justin Welby that their children suffered notably from a childhood at Eton.
It is the wider society that suffers. Nearly half of all private school students go to schools based in Greater London and the south-east, because this is where there is the greatest concentration of jobs paying high enough salaries and bonuses to make school fees affordable. The need to have sufficient funds to pay the fees is one of the most significant drivers of executive pay, and of the choices parents make to work in richly remunerated financial services rather than riskier, entrepreneurial activity that creates genuine wealth. Britain has created a financial system that is risk-averse, short-termist, riven with conflicts of interest and sky-high fees. It is the major cause of British business weakness. But it does pay the school fees. The City and the private school system are locked in a symbiotic relationship of mutual destructiveness.
Those who can also pay the fees are what economist Alison Wolf calls "super-families" – partnerships of highly educated, highly paid professional men and women who see education as the positional good they must buy for their children. And Britain is the easiest place in the world to do it, inevitably closing down the opportunities and chances for others.
The City, super-families and private schools have little interest in a one nation society. Necessarily, they become heavily invested in an alternative philosophy – that the state is burdensome and ineffective, especially in education, and any obstacle to personal choice is motivated by social engineering and envy. This all leads to a wider nexus of ideas: the only route to economic and social success is the minimal state, deregulation and the free market. Leave the EU? Why not?
Yet one nation is more than a feelgood slogan. Societies are built on multiple interdependencies. Trust, the foundation of human relationships, is created around reciprocity. An elite that segregates itself is declaring it does not want to be part of reciprocal relationships of trust. All that matters is its own betterment. Entrepreneurship and innovation, as entrepreneurs and innovators know full well, happen best in a climate of openness, access and high trust, not in societies managed to deliver economic rent and advantage to a self-perpetuating oligarchy of the privately educated.
Yet how to lift this stranglehold of both ideas and institutions? I have slowly become a convert to Adonis's advocacy of academies – essentially, as in judo, converting the force of a stronger opponent to strengthen one's own position. Academies have autonomy, a proved precondition of academic success. Importantly, private schools in financial difficulty can convert to academy status. Suddenly, the state becomes a legitimate education provider of the best, rather than a defender of the second best.
And crucially, academies put private school ideology on the back foot: private schools become the obvious social engineers protecting the advantaged. Despite urging from all sides, currently only 32 private schools co-sponsor an academy, a number that increased by one last year. We are at the beginning of what promises to be a long process, but for the first time in my adult life, I can see how the divisiveness of private education could become socially stigmatised rather than celebrated. And the comprehensive where I gave those awards? It has become an academy.