Wednesday, May 16, 2012

George Monbiot ducks the question on the dominance of private schools

Michael Gove made a cleverly calculated speech last week, pointing out how every area of our national life is now dominated by the products of public schools. As the Guardian reported:
"Around the cabinet table, a majority, including myself, were privately educated," Gove said. He added that the shadow chancellor, shadow business secretary, shadow Olympics secretary, among others, were also educated at private schools. 
"On the bench of our supreme court, in the precincts of the bar, in our medical schools and university science faculties, at the helm of FTSE 100 companies and in the boardrooms of our banks, independent schools are – how can I best put this – handsomely represented," he said. 
Just 7% of the English population are educated privately, but half the UK's gold medallists at the last Olympics went to independent schools, Gove said. Quoting Luck, a book by Ed Smith, a former England cricket player turned journalist, Gove said Britons were 20 times more likely to play for England if they had attended a private school. While 25 years ago, only one of the 13 players representing England on a cricket tour of Pakistan went to a fee-paying school, that figure had risen to two-thirds. "The composition of the England rugby union team reveal the same trend," Gove said. 
The stars of British comedy, theatre and TV were predominantly from public schools, he said, citing Hugh Laurie, David Baddiel and Armando Iannucci. "Popular music is populated by public schoolboys," he said, giving Chris Martin of Coldplay and Tom Chaplin of Keane as examples. 
But the public school "stranglehold" was strongest in the British media, Gove argued. The chairman of the BBC and its director-general, as well as many national newspaper editors, were former private schoolboys, he said. 
I quote at such length only to show that Gove was right: Britain is dominated by the products of public schools. Though it is worth pointing out that Gove himself is not an exception to this trend, as is sometimes supposed, but an example of it. I once heard Andrew Neil, politely and forensically, force Gove to admit that his adoptive parents had paid for him to attend one of the most extensive private schools in Scotland.

But it was a clever speech, because Gove went on to put his finger on one of the weakenesses of the modern left:
"Indeed, the Guardian has been edited by privately educated men for the last 60 years. But then, many of our most prominent contemporary radical and activist writers are also privately educated," he said. "George Monbiot of the Guardian was at Stowe, Seumas Milne of the Guardian was at Winchester and perhaps the most radical new voice of all – Laurie Penny of the Independent – was educated here at Brighton College.
George Monbiot rose to the bait and wrote a notably intemperate and defensive reply in the Guardian. The heart of it was the claim that:
If he really believed in it, in the sense of being an adherent to the cause, he would implement a simple policy, which lies within his department's reach: shutting down private schools.
But this is nonsense. As George Walden pointed out back in 1996 in his We Should Know Better:
Abolition has now entered the realms of party mythology. Labour no longer raises the private schools as an issue, let alone dabbles in solutions; its most recent statements on education have ignored the question entirely. 
The party's reticence is the more striking in that it has coincided with the expansion in the number of pupils at independent schools; left-wingers could legitimately argue that the greater the problem, the louder the leadership's silence.
It is tempting - and would certainly be fun - to attribute this silence to the pusillanimity of the Labour front bench, but that would be unfair. Because as Walden argues in the same passage, the abolition of private education in Britain is not going to happen:
The abolition of private education would be both unethical and impractical: wrong on grounds of curtailing individual freedoms and of destroying many first-rate educational institutions; unworkable because the schools would have recourse to law. 
So great would be their determination to survive that in the meantime many would no doubt take up temporary residence in the disused castles of Normandy, cut-rate weekly return rates available for pupils, courtesy of the Channel Tunnel.
Walden is surely right, which suggests that Monbiot is more concerned with looking good and justifying his anomalous position than with finding solutions to the greatest problem that British education - and, quite arguably British society - faces.


Julian said...

Monbiot also ignores the biggest single obstacle to abolishing independent schools. Where would the money come from to educate 8% more pupils in the state sector? It obviously wouldn't be possible to tax only those who would have sent their children to private schools had they not been abolished, so it would have to come from general taxation.

And if that sort of money could really be found, who would rather have it spent on educating the children of the wealthy than used to improve existing state education?

Simon said...

'If they really believed in it, in the sense of being an adherent to the cause, left wing activists from public schools would implement a simple policy, which lies within their reach: quit their jobs to make way for people from state schools and do something more useful but less well remunerated with themselves.'