January 27, 2011
It is probably safe to say that most people who visit this website are not huge fans of Andrew Neil. Through his documentary on class and politics however, broadcast last night by the BBC, Neil surely went some way to redeeming himself in the eyes of the left. He might just be a working-class hero after all, an ‘oh dear’ whose time has finally come. Alas, he dropped the ball at the very end, by concluding that the solution to inequality in the distribution of power in British society is a return to grammar school education.
The stats on the dominance of the privately-educated in politics are startling. Half the Cabinet went to fee-paying schools, as did a third of MPs, compared to 7% of the population. This may be partly a function of Labour’s defeat and a higher number of Tory MPs. But the privately-educated are over-represented by 400% in the Shadow Cabinet, and Neil claimed that only 6 of Labour’s 60 new MPs are from a working-class background. And this is just politics; obviously the situation is far more pronounced at the commanding heights of the economy.
My belief is that our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to the working-class. The ubiquity of the highly offensive word ‘chav’ demonstrates this – especially given its use on twitter by a Labour parliamentary candidate. It is political correctness gone bye-bye. More generally, I am increasingly hearing otherwise well-meaning, middle-class, do-gooders in my workplace saying increasingly snobby things. Times are harder so they are closing ranks.
Neill’s solution is appalling. He thinks it is perfectly acceptable for public and private school pupils to be given huge advantages in their career, no matter how intelligent they are. But only the cream of the working-class is to be allowed similar advantages. He says we can achieve this with greater flexibility and sophistication than the days of the dreaded 11-plus. It is okay, so the argument goes, if some people get a very good education, as long as everyone gets a quite good education. This is what Neil doesn’t get: it is not about the absolute standards in different educational sectors, it is the relative standards between the sectors. Only a certain number of people can become politicians, lawyers, captains of industry, etc. – they will be the ones who went to the best schools, no matter how good the rest are.
We need a far more radical solution. Sunder Katwala has called for higher taxes on private education, which would be a start – but not an end. What we actually need is the effective nationalisation of education. I am not talking about a ban on private education (it is a free country, after all), just a full withdrawal of taxpayer support. We could, for instance
a) Prevent publicly-funded exam boards from accrediting non-state schools
b) Place much tougher conditions on individuals undertaking teacher training, at our expense, regarding where they can work
c) Withdraw public money from universities that admit students with qualifications not obtained from state schools
There would of course be caveats to all of these rules for exceptional circumstances. It is also likely that many rich people would find a way around the restrictions, by underhand means or by blatantly setting up private enclaves outside the mainstream education system, such as private universities. But it is also likely that the value of a truly comprehensive system – which as lefties we believe in as an article of faith – will come to be recognised eventually, and within a generation or so normative and cultural change will produce near-full compliance.
No segment of society has the right to pass on their good fortune to segments of future generations. All parents do of course have the right, and duty, to give their children every advantage they possibly can. But society has the collective right and duty not to fund and support any system that demonstrably breeds inequality, prejudice and social disharmony.