Private education is not just a consequence of class privilege but is a condition for it. J. Reilly illustrates how discrimination is built into the system and why, under New Labour, it is becoming even more pronounced.
According to a recent report by the Sutton Trust, working class children have less than ‘one in a hundred chance of reaching the top universities’. On top of that though a mere 7% of all children go to private schools they gobble up 50% of places at Oxford and Cambridge. At the last count this ‘magnificent 7%’ accounted for seven out of nine senior generals; 33 out of 39 most senior judges; more than 120 of the 180 officers graduating from Sandhurst; half of the 18 permanent secretaries running Whitehall; and just under half of the 94 grade three civil servants then aged under 50.Taken together it is such staggering proof of institutionalised class discrimination that it absolutely dwarf’s any known statistics of discrimination based solely on race.
“People tell you there is no class system. Let me tell you there fucking well is!” (Ray Winstone, The Guardian, 14.4.00)
Together with existing discrimination, which has remained more or less constant since the General strike in 1926, there is further evidence to suggest, even the meagre gains made in the interim are being rolled back under New Labour.
Martin Johnson, incoming president of National Association of School Masters/Union of Women Teachers, not normally a bastion of radicalism, puts the charge bluntly: “We are back to selection, a more subtle form of selection which brings in the marvels and mysteries of the middle-class housing market”. This, he went on, “is the policy of a bourgeois prime minister with absolutely no understanding of how ordinary schools work”. (The Guardian, 25.4.00)
What does selection mean in practice? It is built first of all on a simple foundation: the intake of children. Every pupil who wants to enter top girls school Rodean sits an exam. So the private schools are selecting talent from the outset. But they are also developing it. It is no secret why private schools do more for their pupils than state schools. Money. “If the government want state schools to offer what we offer they are going to have to spend on each child something much closer to the fees that our parents pay” says Head Mrs Metham. Roedean is paid £10, 260 a year for a day girl, roughly five times the amount an average comprehensive is given for each pupil. Be in no doubt such institutions do, and are designed to reinforce class privilege and thus power. But if they are so bloody clever to begin with: why all the extras?
“Pupils at a school like Westminster” for instance “enjoy all the lavish benefits, tiny class, sizes personal tuition, nightly prep, awesome library facilities and sometimes staff who are cosy with the ways of examining boards” according to Guardian columnist Decca Aikenhead. “The resources are” she reports “literally limitless - and yet a third of Westminster A-level results last year were not Grades A’s”. Given their vulgar advantages - “if already so gifted to begin with” it should, she continues, require “a miracle to end with less than straight A’s but most of them do” In 1996 for example,” Eton sent 60 boys to Oxbridge which sounds impressive. On the other hand 167 boys didn’t get in. If they need all that help just to squeeze a place at Bristol, they are plainly not that clever:’ (The Guardian, 26 3.99)
(Bristol, is ironically one of the universities cited by the Sutton Trust, where the chance “if you are from the less affluent half of the population is only one in 100” – London Evening Standard, 10.4.00)
Though accurate, the observation that the offspring of the rich are not always naturally clever is also ever so slightly to miss the point. It is not the function of the hothouse atmosphere she describes to “actually help individuals to realise their full potential”. Even within these narrow confines egalitarianism is not at all the goal. Of course private education is a consequence of class privilege, but as the earlier statistics show, it is also an essential condition for its preservation. In addition to the veneer of being born to rule; the notional sense of inherent and effortless superiority which is equally carefully fostered, is believed invaluable in sustaining the social and political status quo, particularly in times of crisis. What, in political terms this amounts to is nothing less than a form, though perfectly legal, of - minority rule - in perpetuity.
But how with democratic government is it allowed to continue to happen?
Apart from the usual smoke and mirrors, it is done by creating, as in housing, the national health service and so on, a complete alternative to the comprehensive system. Once established, money and resources are then systematically siphoned off to feather nest the alternative. In the case of education, resources that would otherwise go to the other 93% are ruthlessly plundered to exclusively benefit the children of the rich and influential. There is in Europe at present, no other country where private schools represent a fully-fledged alternative to the schools system. There are now in Britain, no less than 2,300 private schools with an income from fees of £3.2 billion. On top of that many enjoy charitable status and pay no tax on income at all. Which in effect means that the rest of us are - subsidising them. Clearly private education is bought, and paid for by the rest of us, in more ways than one.
All of which allows a school such as Eton to spend £20,000 per annum on a single pupil. Almost nine times the £2,372 allowed for a pupil in a state school.
But this money doesn’t come from nowhere. Simon Szreter an economic historian at St John’s College Cambridge found that in the last 20 years Britain has fallen behind just about every other developed country in its investment in teachers for the state sector. “No other democratically elected government in the modern world” he comments has dreamed up this master stroke of actually disinvesting in the educational resources of the nation”. (The Guardian, 8.3.00)
What’s more during the same 20 years, because the Conservatives were cutting taxes and putting more money into middle class pockets enabling more of them to buy their way into private schools, private schools saw that it was financially and politically advantageous to invest probably for the first time, in actively courting a wider range of pupils. Government policy openly concurred with this. Of course the more under funded, the worse the state sector got, the greater the clamour among the middle classes to be let in to the ‘safe haven’.
That was the Tories right enough. So what has Labour done about it?
Just over 18 months ago, on July 14 1998 David Blunkett, Minister for Education, announced a spending bonanza for schools. “The government is providing an additional £19bn for education over three years from 1999 to 2002”. As the budget for the entire educational establishment in the whole of the UK in 1998 was only £38.3bn this was a huge increase. This he went on, would, in contrast to Tory policy, “give everyone in our society the opportunity to realise their full potential”. In reality for the first two years in power Mr Blunkett actually invested less in education than the Tories had.
So what happened to the £19bn. In reality it never existed. Like New Labour spending on the NHS etc it is all largely a conjuring trick. It works like this.
In year one he had a rise of £3bn. In year two, he had a rise of £3.5bn but he added in the original £3bn, which he would still be paying from year one, and called it a rise of £6.5bn. Then he came to year three when he had a rise of £3.3bn. But he added in the £6.5bn which he had already committed to the budget in the first two years and called it a rise of £9.7bn.Then he stood back and added-up the total - £3bn plus £6.5bn plus £9.7bn. Hey presto! a - £19.2.bn bonanza. But this is not the end of the conjuring. Not even nearly. Not content with the conversion of £9.7bn into £19bn, Blunkett and his ministers have indulged repeatedly in a second kind of scam. This time the money is recycled through a sequence of different announcements by different spokespeople, each time pretending that the unveiling is a fresh investment when in fact its the same old money.
Panorama exposed not too long ago precisely the same trick being pulled on the NHS. But that’s not all. One of Blunket’s proudest achievements, the highly successful scheme to cut the size of classes for infants aged five to seven, is also exposed as fraud. In 1999 the prime minister was pointing to impressive results, with 100,000 more infants in classes under 30.What Tony did not say was that children in every other bracket - nursery, junior, and secondary - were all being taught in classes that were even more overcrowded than when Labour came to power.
Even supposing Labour had the money, would they invest in schooling the many rather than the few?
You have to seriously doubt it. At bottom New Labour are middle class nationalists. Blair himself, genuinely believes in, and actively identifies with the struggles and aspirations of Middle England. With that empathy, comes of course a contempt for all who don’t share those vanities. Bigotry apart, the simple fact is that the money is not there. Rather than face up to it, they choose to pretend that it can be found without the painful business of taking off the middle classes, what Thatcher stole for them, from the working classes. Instead they piss around with half-baked schemes, mouth egalitarian principles, insist ‘poverty is not an excuse’ and attack teachers for not raising standards when the school in many cases is literally falling down around them.
In 1991 for instance, as many as 2,000 state schools contacted the BBC’s ‘Children in Need’ project for money to repair buildings and hire more teachers. Almost a decade later and a full three years in power New Labour have not reversed these cuts. Why?
Simply because estimates of the cost of repairing and replacing buildings which were neglected during the Tory years are estimated to run as high as £20bn.The same estimate coincidentally being quoted for the repairs to council housing after two decades of deliberate neglect. Rather than stump up, Labour has decided to offload council housing instead. Off loading the cost of educating the children of the occupants of the flats is something Labour would also love to do. Again as there can be no talk of restitution in regard to resources, the only question that remains to be answered is how?
One of the principle battering rams used to attack the very IDEA of state schooling, has not been the systematic withdrawal of funding. That was merely the outcome from the posing of the wider philosophical question on whether or not the children of the working class, needed beyond a rudimentary level, to be educated at all. Unless prepared to take on board the reality of existing society, being at a fairly basic level fundamentally unjust, then broadly speaking, everybody is already, with some minor adjustments, in their rightful place. Any attempts to fundamentally alter the status quo, was to fulfil the political ambitions of, in the contemptuous words of Kenneth Baker, those who would “seek to use education for social engineering”.
On the eve of the Second World War working class children were still entitled only to elementary education to the age of 14, with 10% managing to graduate into county grammar schools and the like. And that was it. Now the post war impetus to encourage the working class toward higher education has stalled. Simply because if you deny the role social justice played in education, you remove any logical justification for universal schooling. Politics apart, it makes no economic sense at all.
Back in 1985 some bureaucrats in Whitehall publicly flew that very kite. Might it not be a good idea they ventured tentatively, if the school leaving age was dropped from 16 to 14.After all, as they explained: “There has to be selection, because we are beginning to create aspirations which society cannot match... if we have a highly educated and idle population we may possibly anticipate more serious social conflict. People must be educated once more to know their place.” (Red Action, issue 20)American academic Charles Murray author of the Bell Curve would certainly recognise the logic. His highly controversial book published in 1994, is based precisely on the premise that “our place in social pecking order depends on our IQ, which is genetically and racially pre-determined and cannot be much affected by schooling environment or class”. Another who not only agrees in ‘nature over nurture’ but is happy to admit it is “the fundamental roots of my beliefs” (The Guardian, 20.5.00) is BNP leader Nick Griffin. On May 9 under the title The Growing Threat of the Underclass Murray spoke at the Church House in London in a debate sponsored by the Sunday Times. Sharing the platform with him was Home Secretary Jack Straw. Hundred to one against and counting..?