Monday, 22 November 2010

Sport For All?

One of the most mean-spirited cuts by the coalition government is the plan to abolish the School Sports Partnership (SSP). The scheme costs £162 million a year and helped to ensure that the children in the 22,500 state primary and secondary schools (attended by 93% of the population) received high quality PE teaching. Secondary schools also organised excellent events for partner primary schools. Yes, there are some centrally funded schemes that are useless, a waste of money, this wasn't one of them, emphatically not. There's an excellent campaign on Facebook to save SSP.

The abolition of the School Sports Partnership flies in the face of all the rhetoric about 'widening participation', the obesity scare and winning medals for the London Olympics 2012. On the other hand maybe it isn't such a surprise when you consider the background of the people responsible for the cuts – education secretary Michael Gove (Robert Gordon's), culture secretary Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse), sports minister Hugh Robertson (King's, Canterbury) and prime minister, David Cameron (Eton).

A survey by the Independent Schools' Council in 2006 found that 50% of private schools had their own swimming pool; 37% their own astro-turf pitch and 31% were equipped with squash courts.

A report for the British Olympic Association revealed that 37% of the medallists at the Beijing Olympics were privately educated. Of the rowers and sailors 50% were educated at public schools and this also applied to every medal winner in the equestrian events.

So how did public schools acquire these tremendous facilities? In some cases it's due to our old friend state subsidies. In 1995 the National Lottery granted money for a £4.6 million sports complex for Eton, this was in addition to the two swimming pools, 30 cricket squares and 24 football, rugby and hockey pitches. In their bid for funding the bursar claimed (anyone caught laughing will be given a sound thrashing by the prefects) they were 'deprived' because they didn't have a world class running track. In return for use during the day they promised to open the track to the great unwashed during evening hours.

In 2002 'The Guardian' revealed that St Aubyn's school in Essex received £500,000 from the lottery fund for a new sports hall and Bradfield College near Reading also got £500,000, this time for a tennis centre. In both cases they had to demonstrate how local members of the community would benefit. Rather difficult in Bradfield's case because the school is miles away from Reading in a secluded setting and is not on any regular bus route.

Sport is full of fictional characters like Alf Tupper, 'The Tough of the Track', who succeed against the odds. In real life there are examples like Steve Redgrave who was educated at a state school. However, with the excellent sports facilities that public schools enjoy it isn't a complete surprise that they dominate sports like sailing, horse riding, cricket and rowing. Maybe we should also think about all the other children that could have succeeded if they had had the opportunity. Sport for all?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ambassadors' Public School Perks

I'm struggling for an analogy, so this isn't exact and maybe rather indelicate, but think of the state as offering an engorged teat and public schools are greedily sucking away at it. Hardly is the ink dry on my piece about public school fees subsidies for the military top brass and then another whopping great subsidy appears on the horizon.

In 2009/10 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) paid out £13.3 million for diplomats' children to be educated in the UK and £11.5 million for schools overseas. The maximum subsidy is a rather generous £25,000 per annum.

The last thorough investigation of the scheme was undertaken by 'The Observer' in 2005. They revealed that 181 public schools benefited from the scheme. There were 16 students at Eton, 29 pupils at King's, Canterbury, 20 pupils at Bryanston and six at Fettes. Top of the league was Sevenoaks in Kent which received funding for 33 students at a cost of £200,000.

£5.5 million – or one third of the entire boarding school allowance went to diplomats working or living in Britain after they had returned from foreign postings. This money helped to educate 236 children at public schools.

At the time Phil Willis education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said, 'I find it hard to understand why Foreign Office staff serving in European countries with good quality schools need state funding to send their children to expensive public schools in Britain.'

You might also question the value of the diplomatic service, their expensive embassies and staff perks. A large proportion of the staff aren't actually involved in diplomacy, they are spies and not very effective ones either. Most of the important changes in the world – the fall of the Shah of Iran, the end of communism and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait – they did rather slip through the fingers of British Intelligence. Probably because they spent all their time at cocktail parties and had precious little knowledge of the country they were living in.

As for 'promoting commerce' one of the largest deals was BAE's sale of military jets to Saudi Arabia. This was only made possible through extensive bribes to the Saudi royal family. Let's just say that the British Embassy in Riyadh didn't exactly check all the paper work.

The human rights agenda? Where there is media interest or pressure from public opinion the British Embassy will make a few diplomatic noises and register disapproval. Where that isn't the case it's thought to be 'bad form' to say anything that would upset a local dictator. In 2004 Craig Murray was sacked as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, he'd had the temerity to complain about the treatment of two dissidents who had been boiled to death.

The public perception of British Embassies is that they are there to assist tourists who lose their passports or get into other difficulties. In times of crisis? On December 18 2009 five Eurostar trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel, leaving passengers in appalling conditions. The Eurostar management went into hiding. It's interesting to read the comments of people trapped in the tunnel -

'What I found particularly reprehensible was that, when I rang the British Embassy in Paris on Monday morning for any information, even if just whether the Calais ferries were working, I was curtly told that it was nothing to do with them. So much for embassies being a beacon of safety and not just expensive venues for parties.'

Many British diplomats are paid more than £100,000 a year and live in rent-free accommodation. They can claim allowances of £40,000 to maintain an 'appropriate' standard of living. The boarding school allowance is paid net of tax, so for a diplomat sending two children to a top public school it would be worth an extra £70,000.

An overseas diplomatic post? It's a fairly easy life, it's part of that career cycle – public school, Oxbridge, Foreign Office. Over 80% of ambassadors are public school educated, they achieve their positions partly on the basis of ability but also through the informal social networks they establish at public school.

The cost of training teachers, charity status, pension subsidies and money for the children of generals and ambassadors. Anyone spot any patterns?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Public School Perks For The Military's Top Brass

You've really got to hand it to the ruling class, whenever their perks or privileges are threatened they will fight to their last breath to defend them.

Despite massive cuts to the armed forces (17,000 personnel leaving) the top brass mounted a fierce rearguard action to stop their allowances for public school education being axed. Apparently they 'pulled out all the stops' to protect the payments, which can be worth up to £17,000 per child, per year. For 2009/2010 the annual cost was £103.5 million.

Formerly known as the Boarding School Allowance, the renamed Continuity of Education Allowance (some Ministry of Defence spin doctor worked over time on that) is currently claimed by 5,500 service personnel on behalf of 7,400 children.

A senior Ministry of Defence source was quoted in the 'Daily Mail', 'The plan was to make huge cuts to this allowance. But the generals put up such a fight that we and the Treasury had to back off.'

In January 2005 the 'Observer' conducted an investigation into the scheme. They found that 346 service children were educated at the Royal Alexandra and Albert School, a state secondary near Reigate in Surrey. However, the overwhelming majority were taught in public schools.

Some schools were heavily reliant on the scheme. At Chilton Cantelo in Yeovil, Somerset, 170 out of 200 places were for service personnel; the Royal Hospital School, Ipswich had 156 children, mainly from navy families and Barnard Castle in County Durham had 155 mainly army children. The cash spent on the scheme has risen from £67 million in 2000/1, to £86 million in 2003/4 and £103.5 million in 2009/10.

As for the 'other ranks' if their family is posted with them overseas their children are expected to attend one of the British military schools dotted across the globe. The Continuity Education Allowance is of course 'open to all ranks', yet the Ministry of Defence refuse to reveal the percentage of officers and 'other ranks' benefiting from the scheme. I wonder why? Still it's good to know that whilst the Poor Bloody Infantry are slogging away in Afghanistan, the children of the top brass are receiving a sound education at one of the top public schools – courtesy of the tax payer.

Repeat after me – 'We're All In It Together'.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Get Orf My Land

We're all in it together? Just as the government is condemning the 'benefits culture', with some families jobless for generations, out comes a new study on land ownership. 'Country Life' have just completed the most extensive land survey since 1872. In the nineteenth century half of the land was owned by the aristocracy, a century later and 36,000 of them still own one-third. There is a smaller core group of 1,200 that have extensive land holdings and the top ten owned over 1 million acres.

The Top Ten

  1. Richard Scott – Duke of Buccleuch: 240,000 acres

  1. John Murray – Duke of Atholl: 145,000 acres

  1. Charles Windsor – Duke of Cornwall: 133,602 acres

  1. Gerald Grosvenor – Duke of Westminster: 133,100 acres

  1. Ralph Percy – Duke of Northumberland: 130,000 acres

  1. Captain Alwyne Farquharson: 128,000 acres

  1. Ian Ogilvie Grant – Earl of Seafield: 101,000 acres

  1. Elizabeth Millicent Sutherland – Countess of Sutherland: 82,239 acres

  1. Baroness Willoughby De'Eresby: 78,200 acres

10. Michael Pearson - 4th Viscount of Cowdray: 69,500 acres

Researching the educational background of our Top Ten it is possible to identify particular trends, the usual suspects appear – Eton, Harrow and Gordonstoun, although the Duke of Northumberland did slum it a bit by attending Loretto, but then that's the Percys for you.

I don't want to be accused of bias or extrapolating results from such a small survey but I think that somehow when it comes to the children of the 36,000 aristocrats, we can safely say that without jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, that this could be a fairly straight forward piece of research that wouldn't be a route into a well-funded PhD, there isn't going to be a complicated graph involving meta-analysis or the services of teams of statisticians and we could also make a guess that this result will even apply to those blue bloods who are down to their last Rolls Royce. There will be a simple bar graph that will reflect the following-

Top Public Schools – 100%: Gas Works Comprehensive 0%

Sadly I do have to report that even an expensive education cannot always guarantee success. Charles Grosvenor (a.k.a. The Duke of Westminster) left Harrow with just one 'O' Level. However, with his determination and resolve combined with the ownership of the West End of London he did eventually make a success of his life. Well done!

You have to concede that some of the aristocracy make contributions to the arts, donate to charities and are pillars of their local communities. Then there are the drones, the 'socially useless' who depend on the 'inheritance culture' and indulge in those traditional pursuits like droit du seigneur, gambling, hunting, shooting and fishing or the more modern like snorting lines of coke through a £50 note. Yes, some of them haven't worked for ten generations or more.

You might ask the question – how did the aristocracy gain all that land? They acquired it through force of arms, in some cases dating back to the Norman invasion and then between the fifteenth century and the early nineteenth century they just stole it by enclosing the common land. As justices of the peace they penalised anyone who encroached on it by transporting them to Australia.

Finally, amongst our Top Ten it's interesting to see the Scottish landowners, the Buccleuchs, the Atholls, the Seafields and the Sutherlands. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they consolidated their wealth by expelling their tenants and populating the land with sheep – the notorious Highland Clearances. Puts a new twist on that old saying – 'Get Orf My Land!'

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Teachers' Pensions – 'Serfs Ye Are And Serfs Ye Will Remain'

Contracting out spread like a cancer through private industry during the 1980s. In many workplaces so-called 'peripheral' jobs were jettisoned by the company and farmed out to low cost providers. Services like catering, cleaning and security were all undertaken by different firms, only certain 'core' workers retained rights like pensions, sickness benefits and holiday entitlements. This was a global phenomenon, described by Naomi Klein in 'No Logo'.

In the public sector councils tendered out services to the lowest bidder, school meals were the prime example, where children were offered re-heated offal by private contractors. In education a whole range of services were privatised – the running of local education authorities, transport and school improvement. The most extreme example was Academies where some very dubious organisations or individuals were given carte blanche to run schools.

Every council used to organise their own teaching supply service, gradually they have been closed leaving teachers and schools at the mercy of private agencies. Teaching supply is now dominated by companies like Reed, Capita and Select, there are also the proverbial 'one man and his dog' agencies. The quality ranges from dreadful to absolutely abysmal.

Private supply agencies are not bound by nationally negotiated pay and conditions. For a classroom teacher the top rate of pay, Upper Pay Spine 3, would be around £190 per day, most agencies will only pay a top rate of £140 per day and they will charge the school anything up to £250 per day.

Why do teachers work on supply? They may wish to only work part time, it might be due to childcare arrangements, they may be close to retirement or just disillusioned with the sheer volume of meaningless paperwork.

Some teachers decide to abandon the state system and work in public schools, that is their choice. Their wages and conditions are set by whichever school employs them, in practice most public schools pay close to the nationally agreed scales for teachers' pay. They can, for some obscure reason, stay in the state Teachers' Pension Scheme. The government subsidises this to the tune of £131 million. Supply teachers in state schools employed by private agencies are not eligible for the Teachers' Pension Scheme.

In a nutshell, the state ensures that a classics master at Eton is gently eased into the Elysian Fields of a golden retirement, courtesy of the state Teachers' Pension Scheme. By way of contrast, the state contribution to the pension of Joe or Jean Bloggs, slogging their guts out teaching the unteachables of 10G at Gas Works Comprehensive, is, in the words of that wise old philosopher Mick McCarthy, 'zero, zilch or diddly squat'.

We really shouldn't complain, we know our place, it was Richard II who sneered at the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt swaying from their gibbets, 'Serfs ye are and serfs ye will remain'.

Letter in TES

Sunday, 7 November 2010

£131 million subsidy for pensions

During the 1980s 'public' schools attempted to rebrand themselves as 'independent' schools. They wanted to move away from those old traditions of boys beating boys, fagging and rampant snobbery. They also tried to promote the idea that parents were making a choice about being 'independent' from state control.

The fact is that the state pays for the training of teachers and public schools enjoy other subsidies through charitable status. Last week the Green Party managed to winkle out information about another whopping subsidy. Teachers in public and state schools are eligible to join the Teachers' Pension Scheme. Teachers contribute 6.4% of their salary and their employer 14.1% of their salary. Because the scheme runs at a loss a private sector employer would need to contribute 20% to match the state scheme.

The Green Party calculates that the 5.9% difference for the 62,349 teachers in public schools (average salary £35,000) is equivalent to a subsidy of £131 million. I'll just repeat that £131 million.

Private sector companies have their own pension schemes which are not underwritten by the government and are dependent on the fortunes of the stock market.

I know it might be distressing in these rather straightened times, but I would humbly and respectfully suggest that teachers in public schools should be thrown out of the Teachers' Pension Scheme and become a bit more, shall we say, 'independent'. Is it fair that someone on low wages should be subsidising the pension of the 1,639 teachers at the top public schools like Eton, Harrow and St Paul's? I did try and find the appropriate Latin phrase but failed, I think it's known as 'taking the piss'.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The happiest days?

English public schools exploit the myth and legend of the never ending cricket match, the halcyon days of youth. Hearty types in cricket whites, fair play, sportsmanship, the gentlemen's code and the happiest days of their lives. The schools that build the Empire and provided most of the prime ministers – Eton top (naturally) on nineteen.

David Cameron, whilst being at pains to apologise for 'indiscretions' (smoking pot), is always ready to praise his alma mater. Even at the turn of the last century sensitive poetic types like Rupert Brooke reminisced with pleasure, 'I had been happier at Rugby than I can find words to say. As I looked back at five years, I seemed to see every hour golden and radiant, and always increasing in beauty... I could not (and cannot) hope for or even imagine such happiness elsewhere'.

For many public school boys the house master became a substitute father and they continued to consult them about finding a job or getting married. The Old Boys associations provided a social link and some of them continued through Oxford or Cambridge with same circle of old school friends. The influence of the 'old school tie' then assisted them in choice of career.

From the nineteenth century onwards there has been a clear division in the perception of public schools, for high culture they represented conformism, philistinism, an out-dated curriculum and authoritarianism. Yet within popular culture a different world was reflected – 'Boy's Own', 'The Gem', 'Magnet' and 'Goodbye Mr Chips'. As George Orwell commented, 'Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever'.

Public schools have their own rituals, codes and and language. In 1961 the sociologist Erving Goffman described how 'Total Societies' – prisons, mental hospitals, concentration camps, monasteries and British public schools – provided for the needs of their inhabitants within isolated communities. The authority of the institution enforcing acceptance and conformity.

Since the 1970s the numbers of boarders at public schools has declined, but most of the 'top' ones are either exclusively or mainly boarding – Eton and Harrow full board; Tonbridge 440 boarders, 330 day pupils; Oundle 840 boarders, 240 day pupils.

The effect of boarding schools? For many public school children the emotional clock stopped and remained fixed. Cyril Connolly in the 'Enemies of Promise' (1938) described this phenomenon as 'permanent adolescence' – 'the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools their glories, their disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and arrest their development... growing up seems a hurdle which most of us are unable to take.'

There's an interesting book by Nick Duffell, 'The Making of Them' which analyses how children survive in boarding schools. There is the humiliation and 'initiation ceremonies' for the new recruits, the aim to break the child and forge a new 'total identity'. He describes how boarding school children are wracked by guilt – why was I sent away? They construct a 'Strategic Survival Personality' or a false self as a coping mechanism. Others use cognitive dissonance where trauma or desperate unhappiness is placed at the edge of their personality or consciousness. The Conservative MP Nicholas Fairburn is quoted, 'Childhood ended when I was sent to boarding school aged five... those early years bred in me a feeling of isolation and independence that has never left me. It caused me to retreat to the desert island on oneself where one could be oneself.'

It is true that from the 1970s onwards public schools were forced to abandon some of the most objectionable practices – boys beating boys, fagging, Spartan conditions in dormitories and some converted to become co-educational, although Eton, Harrow and Rodean remained single sex.

However, the main elements of the public school system remain – the petty rules and regulations, the stifling conformism, the snobbery, the elitism and the complete social apartheid. But they don't produce rebels just individualists or nihilists.

The happiest days? If you are born and raised in a prison or a cloistered environment you will never know any different. Public schools are now a gilded cage, the best of facilities, the best of opportunities, but they still don't equip their pupils for life in the real world. Can they empathise with or understand unemployment, homelessness or poverty?