Wednesday, 23 February 2011

We can't all be brain surgeons?

Some public schools don't make any apology or excuses for educating a wealthy elite, the results are there for all to see and you don't find many former pupils flipping burgers or cleaning the streets. As for education for the masses the philosopher Roger Scruton noted in 'The Meaning of Conservatism' (1980),

'It is simply not possible to provide universal education. Nor, indeed, is it desirable for the appetite of learning points people only in a certain direction; it siphons them away from places, where they might have been contented.'

Scruton believes that some jobs may require 'natural intelligence' but will not appeal to someone who has been 'flattered by the gift of education'. However, he does call for jobs in different 'walks of life' to be accorded 'dignity and recompense'. In other words people should receive an education that will prepare them for the job that is appropriate to their 'natural gifts'.

In the nineteenth century the prevailing wisdom was that schooling should reflect the class structure. The Taunton Commission (1864) recommended schools for the elite to educate prime ministers, bishops, judges and generals; a middling group for clerks, teachers and officers; and finally the lowest schools for tradesmen, farmers and shopkeepers. The state would eventually educate the poor.

Rather than establish 'inclusive' or comprehensive schools the 1944 Education Act perpetuated this divide with proposals for grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. It is interesting to note how some of the new academies have concentrated on vocational subjects (hairdressing, technology. Tourism) and steered away from academic subjects.

The former head of Ofsted Chris Woodhead believes that some children are born 'not very bright' and that middle class children have superior genes, well educated parents produce academically able children.

Even if there was any shred of evidence for genetic inheritance, the main characteristic of public schools derives not from intelligence but their social class. From the middle of the nineteenth century they deliberately excluded all but the sons of the upper classes.

As the Honorary Secretary of Cheltenham College explained,

'Had we admitted tradesmen in the first instance, we must have done so almost without limit, and in the confined circle of shops in Cheltenham, we should have had the sons of gentlemen shaking hands perhaps with school-fellows behind the counter and a fusion of ranks taking place from which the gentlemen of decided rank and property would derive less inconvenience, possible, than the clergymen of confined income or half-pay officers.'

Social snobbery remains one of the main motivations for sending children to public schools, they will mix with the 'right type of children'. In the elite public schools there is a self-perpetuating oligarchy where son follows father at his alma mater and always into the same House, naturally.

Rather than a meritocracy of talent the result of the public schools is the restriction of social mobility. Britain and America have the most unequal education systems and widest gaps in income among developed countries. The cost to society? In their book 'The Spirit Level', Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett noted that the more unequal a society the higher the levels of crime, mental illness, mistrust, illiteracy, obesity and anxiety.

Social mobility? Take the medical profession, a report by the British Medical Association in 2008 found that 67% of medical students were privately educated as against 57% in 2004. Researchers noted that students were leaving with an average debt of £37,000 and that this was a significant factor in deterring poorer students from applying.

Why are so many of the best jobs dominated by expensively educated public school children? Social networks or the 'Old School Tie' are an important factor. Evidence of this is predictably scanty, only on rare occasions does it surface. John Rae in 'The Old Boys Network – A Headmaster's Diaries 1970-1986' recounts on his time at the helm of the elite Westminster School. On December 16, 1983 he confided,

''A' has failed to get into Magdalen College, Oxford, to read law. Mother and father want me to pull out all the stops to get him a place at another college... father has influential friends in politics, business and academia; he lists his contacts at Oxford and wants me to do the telephoning. 'Our Euro-MP has a brother-in-law who is Provost of Oriel,' is the sort of line. He also suggests that I approach Lord Dacre, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, because he took a friend's boy last year who failed to make Oxford.'

In subsequent entries he details how the boy's uncle, 'a prominent Magdalen man' rings the president of the college. The father lobbies Asa Briggs at Worcester and Robert Blake at Queens. Finally, this boy with three B's at 'A' level, is given a place at Christ Church, Oxford. Rae is forced to concede 'this saga illustrates the nature of inequality'.

In recent times access to jobs in the media, politics and business comes through unpaid internships. In 2002 a survey by Journalism Training Forum showed that two-thirds of new entrants came from homes where the main wage-earner worked in a professional or senior managerial occupation. In 2006 the Sutton Trust found that of the country's 100 leading journalists over half were privately educated.

The main gateway into Fleet Street used to be via apprenticeships at provincial newspapers, now journalists are recruited from post graduate courses. At London's City University over half of the journalism students came from four universities – Oxford, Bristol, Leeds and Cambridge. With fees and living costs students could expect to pay £20,000 in addition to their student debt. Even after qualifying many journalist are forced to work as unpaid internees.

The influence historically of the public school educated elite? At the beginning of the twentieth century even some of the apologists admitted that England was singularly unprepared – the games cult, anti-intellectualism, the narrow curriculum, 'character' above intelligence and the stifling conformity. As E.C. Mack noted the public schools were 'mints for the coining of Empire builders.'

Successive government commissions noted the alarming gaps between British and German technical and scientific education. A large section of the ruling class were the kind of effete drones so lovingly depicted by P.G. Wodehouse, where the necessity for work was relieved by handouts from dowager aunts.

Correlli Barnett in 'The Collapse of British Power' noted how in 1942 Britain was within four months of complete bankruptcy and completely dependent on America for capital, raw materials, steel and armaments. The reason for the decline? The national character, exemplified by the politicians like Chamberlain, Simon, Halifax and Eden, the products of the public school system that was also the engine of uniformity, the obedience to authority, the crushing of originality and that created the upper classes – conventional, dull, self-satisfied and snobbish.

In the 1980's Martin Wiener in 'English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980' noted the long history of public schools disdain for science, engineering and commerce. In the nineteenth century the industrial bourgeoisie separated themselves from,

'sources of dynamism in existing society and striving to attach itself to an older way of life promoted a change in collective self-image from that of a still-young and innovative nation to one ancient and peculiarly stable.'

This leads us now to the Coalition Government lead by Head Boy, Cameron (Eton) and Deputy Head Boy, Clegg (Westminster). As the Sunday Mirror noted due to the coalition cuts councils are closing leisure centres. Using aerial shots of Cabinet minster's houses/mansions it was evident that this wouldn't really affect them, out the back door were the swimming pools and tennis courts.

The danger (for them) is that a remote, distant, aloof ruling class eventually loses all moral authority.

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