Friday, 22 July 2011

Why the Right has it right on education - probably


In the many column inches devoted to education, and especially to tuition fees, there is much talk of 'privilege.'  You may well think that I, as a beneficiary of education at not one but three universities, am a clear example of it.  And you'd be right.  I have indeed been privileged.
I have been privileged by parents who valued my education enough that rather than let me flounder at the under-achieving local comprehensive, they paid boarding fees to send me to a state, grant-maintained boarding school (where, for the record, day pupils paid no fees).  They could have spent their money on other things, but chose to make a sacrifice.  They, in turn, had been privileged by the state grammar schools which educated them to be the first generation in their families to enter higher education, and so paved the way from working class life into the professions.  And they had the support of blue collar parents who learnt the value of education again at the grammar schools which they had to leave at the age of fifteen so that they could earn their crust.
So in short, I have been privileged by three generations of selective state schooling: the sort of schooling that the Left has for thirty years devoted itself to demolishing.
 It has taken a right-wing Labour Prime Minister and a Conservative-led government to stand up to the failing leftist orthodoxy of a one-size-fits-all compulsory education.  The number of schools applying for academy status is soaring as head masters and mistresses strive to take the curriculum back into their own hands.  Free schools, despite predictable attempts at sabotage by the more thuggish leftist elements, also seem set to return the privilege of a fine education to the children of those whose taxes fund it.
The new structures give some sign of hope that pupils from poorer backgrounds may have the learning (if not the earnings, but we'll come to that) needed to matriculate at university.  Oxbridge admissions departments are often lambasted for admitting so many more privately than publicly educated entrants.  I have said before that universities cannot be expected to compensate for the failings of state compulsory education.  The government's reforms are a step towards the social mobility that the old grammar school system provided.  True equality among university entrants will be achieved not by admitting the under-privileged, but by privileging all.
That said, we should note that the statistics for state school entrants can be misleading: not all state schools are the equal.  Public services in wealthy catchment areas tend to be far better than those in poorer ones, and schools are no exception.  Cambridge itself is notable for this: one of the wealthier areas of the country has the best health services and schools.  So, it's a city of rich people who don't need to spend money on private education or healthcare, but can spend it on overpriced houses, holidays and cars.  Are these really the people intended to benefit most from the welfare state, I wonder?  It would be shocking if their children were given an advantage in university admissions over privately educated pupils simply to fill a quota of state-educated pupils.  For this reason, I suspect that higher tuition fees will make very little difference to social mobility in the short term.  The people who would have paid fees anyway will continue to do so, and those who would not now have more of an excuse not to.  Governments will no doubt paint a picture of rising state school entrants, but I suspect that these will come from the middle class families who can afford to live in areas with decent state schools.  The money they save on private education they can spend on university fees instead.
The only problem with the great improvements being made to secondary education is that they are too little and too late.  In fact, about thirteen years too late for many an eighteen year old.  My wife, who is a primary school teacher by profession and a researcher in infant child psychology, tells me that there is something like a three year gap in emotional and mental development between children from middle class and poorer backgrounds.  Worse, she can see this in children as young as five years old.  The chances are that even before they get to primary school, their ability to concentrate enough to study has already been determined.  This sounds fatalistic, and I'm sure there are counterexamples, but it really does seem that the first step to increasing social mobility is changing the attitudes and lifestyles of poor parents.  The greatest privilege one can have is a supportive family and community of adult role models.  In areas blighted by generations of unemployment, alcoholism and an utter lack of self worth, this is just not there.  In such places, it will not matter how great the schools and teachers are until these issues are addressed.  One brief but unfashionable suggestion being proposed by Ian Duncan Smith's crowd is this: finish school, don't have children in your teenage years, and don't have children out of wedlock.  Statistically, at least (which means it could be baloney, granted), it seems that those who have children later, when they are more financially secure, and bring them up with a partner legally bound to them, prosper considerably more than those who do otherwise.
If the governments changes in state education and the social initiatives of IDS do take off, high university fees will then become a genuine problem, rather than the bogeyman I suspect they are at the moment.  But counterintuitively, Oxbridge will be the best placed institutions to offer places to poorer students, rich as they are in endowments and real estate-funded scholarships.  Other universities will need to follow suit.  We will also need to rely more on philanthropy and alumni contributions.  The difficulty with the latter is that those institutions which educate people for the lower paying professions such as teaching and nursing will reap the least yield.  My own college, Selwyn, which has by the intention of its founders produced plenty of clergymen and schoolmasters but precious few business tycoons, is one example of this, something like those poor East End Anglo-Catholic churches which struggle to pay their incumbent while the rich, middle class Evangelicals up the road have a troop of curates. These are the institutions to which tuition fees pose the greatest threat.  Perhaps the answer is in selective government funding, rather than its wholesale removal.
Friends have been puzzled by my political shift in recent years.  How, we used to ask together, could anyone with a conscience ever vote Tory?  Tuition fees are enough to make my support wobble, I confess, although we will have to wait and see: sufficient bursaries could still make them work.  But for the rest, I remain secure in my conviction that my vote was and remains one for social justice.  I used to say that I was a champagne Socialist, in that I wanted everyone to have the champagne.  My means have changed, but not the end.  Now, I think that the way to give the poor the prosperity they need is not by increasing their dependency on the state which has failed them, nor by subsidising a welfare state which frankly benefits the wealthy more than the poor.  Rather, it is by building the economic productivity of the nation so that all have the freedom and responsibility of ownership.  Prosperity will be won not by a rhetoric of favouring the under-privileged, but by ensuring that all have the privileges which people like me have enjoyed.

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