Monday, July 16, 2007
We’re in Sedbergh on the western edges of the Yorkshire Dales, it’s a gorgeous day and we’ve been camping in Dent, a beautiful picture-postcard village with cobbled streets and its own locally brewed beer. We’re relaxing watching a game of cricket, deck chairs and a flask of tea. The game is louder than I remember it, plenty of verbal encouragement, but no “sledging” i.e., casting aspersions on the batsman’s parenthood.
Sedbergh is dominated by its public school, which was founded in 1525 by the provost of Eton. The boys are strolling past with their foppish hair and expensive Italian shoes, the girls seem to be preparing to undergo metamorphosis into Sloane Rangers. The cricket pitch is absolutely immaculate, like a bowling green, somehow it doesn’t compare with the leisure facilities on the council estate that surrounds our school. Even the play facilities are limited, it took the local youth club ages to get a few swings and a slide, and even then it was through hard won grants.
Walking through Sedbergh this also seems to be replicated on their council estates, walk a mile away and there’s a piece of rutted ground that must be the football pitch because there’s a set of rusty posts bent in the middle. Arriving back later at the cricket pitch the pavilion scoreboard is still ticking over and some hale and hearty types are shouting encouragement, with their blazers, cricket whites and jumpers it’s almost like a scene out of ‘Brideshead Revisited’. I suppose it’s fitting that we’re watching the cricket from a crumbling concrete embankment fringed by nettles, two of the benches have been smashed up and there’s spiked iron railings to keep the plebs at bay.
Under apartheid or “separate development” in South Africa, blacks had no access whatsoever to professional or skilled jobs. Of course it isn’t directly equivalent, just that the UK and USA have less social mobility than other advanced societies and it is getting worse.
A survey published in April 2006 by the economist Tom Hertz showed that the United States has one of the lowest levels of intergenerational mobility in the rich world. A child born into a poor family has a 1% chance of growing up to become one of the richest 5%, while a child born into a wealthy family has a 22% chance. Another study, published by Business Week, found that in 1978 23% of adult men whose fathers were in the bottom quartile made it into the top quartile. In 2004 the figure was 10%.
Hertz noted "among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States". In 2006 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study showing that UK citizens in their 30s today are twice as likely to be stuck in the same economic class as their parents than people born 10 years earlier.
You can’t have an equitable or happy society when it is rigidly divided into Helots and Homoioi. As the French have discovered once you create a permanent under-class with no hope of advancement you create problems – even ethnic minority youth with University degrees cannot find work.
Another feature of apartheid was that the whites had no knowledge or understanding of black society. For many of them their only contact was through their black servants, the townships were on another planet.
In the past public schools were quite blatant about social separation, writing in 1930 Ronald Gurner, a one-time master at Marlborough school noted that, “It is difficult, if you are a country solicitor or doctor of any standing, to contemplate with equanimity the possibility of your son sitting side by side with the son of your junior clerk or chauffeur - better send him to St Cuthbert's on the south coast. The fees are high, and you are not certain as to exactly what is the standard of education... but there are no board-school boys there, and in the things that matter your boy will be safe.”
Public schools are still socially selective cloistered environments that isolate their pupils from wider society. Yet they will be the people managing companies, serving as the officer corps in the army and representing us as MPs. It took the shock of the Second World War before some of the aristocracy understood anything about the lives of ordinary people. William Whitelaw visited the parents of his guardsmen killed in battle and was distressed at the state of the slums many of them were forced to live in. It didn’t radicalise him he was a patrician Tory, but he never forgot it.
That social mixing rarely occurs, at Eton some students were asked to write an essay about poverty, one of them wrote, “the family were poor, the father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor and so was the butler.”
Of course there are time worn arguments in favour of public schools – they are centres of excellence; they raise the general level of achievement; disadvantaged children can attend through scholarships or bursaries; they save the state money by educating 7% of children at their parents’ expense and some children need to be boarders because their parents live abroad.
There’s no doubt that public schools can develop a child’s potential. I saw a programme about blacksmiths and one of the most prominent ones had been to Eton. He recounted that when he told his housemaster that he wanted to be a blacksmith he said, “Dear boy, aim to be the best.” They bought a forge for him and recruited an experienced blacksmith to teach him, money no object.
There was a survey on sporting facilities that showed that 59% of public schools had their own swimming pool, 37% their own astro-turf and 39% had a squash court. The British Olympic Association estimated that 60% of the country’s medal winners were privately educated. The Sutton Report in 2006 revealed that children educated at public schools accounted for 50% of Oxford University students, one third of MPs, 70% of top barristers and half of prominent journalists.
The fees charged by public schools ensure that only the super –rich can attend. Sedbergh’s fees are £20,000 a year. They boast that the rural seclusion will keep their charges away from ‘urban temptations’, their excellent sporting facilities have produced stars like Will Carling and Will Greenwood.
Through their fees and endowments public schools are able to boast average class sizes of 9.8 per teacher, 14% of teachers are employed by public schools and in secondary schools the state spends on average £5,000 per pupil against £8,000 for those able to pay.
However, many ‘public’ schools owe their origins to acts of charity by wealthy men. One example is top public school Haberdasher’s Aske, which was established in 1689, when Sir Robert Aske left £30,000 to the Haberdasher’s Company to educate sons of poor freemen. I wonder if they would like to reveal how many poor haberdashers’ sons are currently educated there, how many receive Free School Meals or are Special Education Needs?
The call for the abolition of public schools is decried as crude class envy, so I’ll plead guilty on that score. But what is farcical is that because some of them were endowed as charities in the dim and distant past they are eligible for tax relief, current value over £100 million. They also leech from the state by taking teachers trained at the taxpayers’ expense. Perhaps they would like to make a financial contribution towards the cost?
Public schools entrench class privilege and give a small group the type of education that children at my school could only dream of. Or maybe they are just preparing them for the type of society where a chief executive earns 86 times the ordinary worker or in Sir Terry Leahy’s case 574 times more than the woman on the till at Tesco’s.
Meanwhile back to the game of cricket and here the class divide and life chances conferred by an expensive education are apparent, 35% of first-class cricketers have been educated at public schools, looking at the facilities it isn’t a surprise.
Labels: Public Schools
Further, perhaps it is just as dangerous to stereotype the wealthy as it is to stereotype the poor?
If they were abolished then there would be another 660,000 students for the state sector to deal with. So you not only take the fees paid by those parents out of the education system but you also impose massive additional costs on the state system. Are you expecting those fees to somehow be transferred into the state system? Obviosly they are lost to education.
How can you say that the private sector leeches on the state system when in fact it removes the cost of 660,000 students from the system and the government still collects their parents' taxes to pay for other children's schooling.
I believe that most private schools provide free places for desrving local children which must be charitable.
I am constantly amazed by how many people criticise those who choose to spend hard-earned income on education while seeing nothing wrong with those spending their money on bigger and better cars or other worldy goods.
I am a teacher in the state system.
I am a teacher in the state system.<
Ah but that choice isn't there for everyone, not by any means. It's money that gives one that choice.
I think groups like these should become more popular. They're after the abolition of public schools. More power to them!
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