Huff and Puff

John Sutherland

  • We Should Know Better by George Walden
    Fourth Estate, 231 pp, £9.99, September 1996, ISBN 1 85702 520 2
  • All Must Have Prizes by Melanie Phillips
    Little, Brown, 384 pp, £17.50, September 1996, ISBN 0 316 88180 5

Every summer, with the absence of Parliamentary news and the arrival of GCSE, A-level and degree results, the great education debate starts up again. This year’s is accompanied by two jeremiads: one from a politician, the other from a journalist. Both aim at a mass audience. All Must Have Prizes is promoted by its publisher as ‘the book every parent must read’; We Should Know Better is held to ‘chime in with the current collective mood of the nation in much the same way as Will Hutton’s bestselling The State of the Nation did last year’.

In education, it seems, we have never had it so bad. Both books are one-idea affairs whose extravagantly pessimistic analysis is delivered as woe-unto-this-nation polemic. Without, that is, tedious research or first-hand experience of their subject. Neither can have taken more than a few months to dash off. None the less, each one has the answers. Of the two, the politician’s is by far the better. Walden’s one idea is that Britain has a segregated school system which nobody, for their own disreputable reasons, will talk about – except George Walden, who for the last year or two has talked about nothing else. This ‘apartheid’ unbalances the quality of education which our children receive and hypostatises malign aspects of the British class structure. Walden estimates (the source of his information is uncited in the interest of keeping his book ‘jargon-free’) that 7 per cent of the school population is in the private sector. This tiny cohort attracts a per capita investment three times larger than pupils in the state sector. Products of the ‘independent’ schools thrive accordingly. In 1994, 46 per cent of all Oxbridge entrants came from the private sector.

Like others in the Tory Party before him, George Walden has discovered that there are two nations. One is getting all the educational gravy. ‘As long as our independent sector remains divorced from the national educational enterprise, our state system is condemned to mediocrity,’ he prophesies. Reuniting divorced parties is a tricky business. Clearly if Walden, who was a minister for education, couldn’t even start Britain down that road, the great educational harmony is not going to be easily achieved.

What makes We Should Know Better a good read is the author’s satire on our little English hypocrisies. He is amusing on ‘the codes of silence’, the doublethink, the complacencies that constrain useful discussion of the subject. Politicians – more prudent than he is, and therefore able to stay in high office longer than he did – resolutely see no evil: ‘Education Crisis? What Education Crisis?’ Aspiring middle-class parents (even Labour shadow ministers) genuflect to the state system, cross their fingers behind their backs and send their children to private schools. Walden is shrewd, funny and, I believe, wholly correct about the demoralising effect of this middle-class defection to the traditional educational enclaves of the rich and aristocratic:

What distinguishes British teachers in the state sector from their co-professionals in Europe is not just the relatively low status of education, though that is a factor. From their first day in the classroom, however gifted or dedicated they may be, at the back of their minds our teachers know that a million of the richest, most influential and frequently most educationally discerning parents in the country will go to any lengths not to send their children to the schools where they teach. They will spend their savings, remortgage their homes, borrow money at exorbitant rates, beg cash from aged relatives, drive battered cars and insist that they have always preferred to spend their holidays in Cornwall and the Yorkshire Dales rather than Provence or Umbria – anything to avoid consigning their progeny to the schools used by the majority of their countrymen.

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