Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The curse of the public schools

The British Academy (posh Regency house above St James’s Park) has brilliant lectures, discussion panels and conferences, all free, on academic topics that are of wide interest. I've attended great events on Vietnam, empires, directions in anthropology, the politics of the Middle East, neuroscience and understanding human evolution and Byron. All the top people in the relevant discipline turn up, such is the distinction of the speakers; the audience is full of white-haired men and women as sharp as nails with sticks and helpers, as well as bright postgraduates and professors from all over the country and key people from quangos, the Science Museum, the Army etc. etc. It’s all so unlike the third-rate world of education in the quality of the proceedings and it’s salutary once in a while to watch the real disciplines doing their stuff at full power. The British Academy, moreover, seems to be one of the few public spaces totally free of New Labour bollocks (which the speakers invariably have a go at at every opportunity) – no targets or accountability or key skills, just scholarship, knowledge and speculation.

Last night was the historians Peter Hennessy and Ross McKibbin on ‘The Fifties: Conflict or Consensus?’. It was really about post-war politics, when there really was a consensus between the mainstream of the parties (NHS, nationalisation of Bank of England, coal and railways, Cold War) up to when it ended – date disputed but probably the early 70s. Then we had twenty years of savage conflict (‘Margaret vs Arthur’ as Hennessy put it – i.e. Thatcher/Scargill), with present Cabinet members (then in their twenties) saying crazy lefty things at conferences; and now we have a consensus again, at the core of which is the doctrine that 40% of national income, plus or minus 2%, is the amount that will be spent on public purposes.

One interesting fact, that came out almost incidentally: during the war Churchill and other intelligent Tories had come to take it for granted that the public schools had had their day and couldn’t survive. It would have been easy to include their abolition in the 1944 Education Act. In fact not a single Labour MP (so Ross McKibbin – I think -- said) voted for the amendment to that effect – sadly, there wasn’t time to hear why not.

It was a huge failure. The price paid for retaining the private sector in education – this is a point that’s obviously true but that I'd never realised until McKibbin briefly stated it, right at the end of the session – was that comprehensive schools were thereby ruled out for many years: if the aristocracy were allowed to retain their privileged education with all the access it afforded, it was not politically feasible to deny the middle class their own privileged route, the grammar schools. So we were stuck with the grammar schools, which has meant in London that we’ve never, as I understand it, had a true comprehensive school, even leaving the private sector out of account.

One more interesting fact (out of very many): in 1946 more boys leaving grammar schools entered engineering than any other profession.

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