Comprehensives have been the major form of secondary education in Britain for 30 years or more. It should by now be utterly unremarkable for someone who attended one to gain an important, but not earth-shattering, job like Sinnott's. But it still seems a striking achievement, and that should tell us that something is going wrong.
Another anecdote. A few months ago Andrew Neil's TV programme This Week had Fiona Millar - Guardian columnist and Labour insider - on as a guest to talk about education. Neil, Michael Portillo and Dianne Abbott all agreed that in their youth grammar schools provided a ladder of opportunity that bright working-class children could climb in order to get better jobs than their parents had.
Neil said that in the 1960s he and his fellow grammar school products felt they were about to take over the world. Nowadays every young thruster he interviews for a job seems to have been to public school.
Fiona Millar sat through all this wearing the expression that Labour people always wear when they are forced to list with views they don't agree with. It is a mixture of disdain and martyrdom. She looked like St Sebastian discovering that the milk has gone off.
Millar contributed little to the discussion, but then there was little she could say because Neil and Co. were right. The widespread introduction of comprehensive education has led to a reduction in the opportunities open to bright working class children.
To understand how this has come about, read today's Observer column by Nick Cohen. He argues that the current system suits the middle classes very well. While defending the current system under the cover of anti-elitism, they can use their wealth to buy houses in the catchment areas of their best schools or use their contacts to talk their way into church schools.
Meanwhile, poor children - however bright - go to poor schools.
As Cohen writes:
40 years of comprehensives have left Britain a sclerotic society where parents' money matters more than a child's talent ... anti-elitist harangues from the upper middle class are the perfect cover for a system which suits it to a tee.Oddly enough, Cohen's analysis is close to that of George Walden, the former Conservative minister. In his We Should Know Better: Solving the Education Crisis Walden argues that Britain is bedevilled by the class divide in education; and in The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses he argues that we are "governed by an elite of anti-elitists".
What is to be done? The problem we have is that many on the left are more interested in social equality than they are in educational excellence, and that support for comprehensive education is so deeply entrenched that questioning it is treated as something close to heresy. Many Liberal Democrats take much the same view.
The usual charge made against someone who commits this heresy is to accuse them of wanting to turn the clock back and return to the 1950s. That is silly - it is not possible to put the clock back even if you want to. And if comprehensive schools are not working as it was hoped they would, shouldn't we say so?
Walden's answer was to offer private schools - particularly the former direct grant schools - the opportunity to opt back into the state system in return for being allowed to choose which pupils they admitted. Cohen merely argues that:
this is a more class-ridden country than when the grammar schools were in place and ... Unless the brightest in the working class get an elite education the Today listeners will always win.Elitism is the worst sin of all - and particularly feared because no one has ever defined exactly what it means - but there has always been an element of hypocrisy, not just about the overall comprehensive system, but within the schools themselves. In my day at least, the best comprehensives were usually rigorously streamed.
I suspect that the problem, as so often, lies in the socialist attempt to impose one system upon all children and all communities. Worse, almost every proposal to salvage the present system involves more centralisation and standardisation. People want to remove parental choice from the system or abolish church schools?
Why not let many different kinds of schools with different curriculums flourish? Those who complain that this will lead to a two-tier system should read this quotation from George Walden. We have a two tier system already.
With this in mind it was interesting to see Nicol Stephen, a Lib Dem MSP and minister for enterprise and life-long learning at Holyrood, calling for children to be allowed the option of going to college at the age of 14 to train for trades for which there is strong demand.
A second-class education for the proles? I don't think so. One of the problems with education is that those who run it, who enjoyed academic work themselves, assume that it is a pleasure for all and that anyone denied the opportunity to do it is being robbed.
The reality is different. As Stephen says:
"I have seen children who are bullied and unhappy in the school environment who have been transformed by college where they have become motivated and want to learn, maybe in plumbing or electrical work. There are few young people who do not want a worthwhile job, they just need the chance to develop."There is a need for new thinking in education: a need to go beyond the unthinking defence of the comprehensive principle. And the Liberal Democrats should be leading it.