Why are the Conservatives so embarrassed by tradition? Why in particular are they so embarrassed by this country’s independent schools that they seldom defend them?
As Charlotte Vere, acting General Secretary of the Independent Schools Council, said when I spoke to her earlier this week: “It just feels like we have fewer friends than we used to. Politicians in general are less willing to be open in their support for the sector.”
David Cameron exemplifies this trend. He likes to say: “It’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going.” His formula, which is designed to foil attacks on him as a son of privilege, is profoundly unconservative. It devalues his inheritance from his family and the others from whom he learned, or absorbed, the manners and attitudes which make him such an outstanding member of the ruling class.
But it would be unfair to imply that Cameron is alone in betraying, or downplaying, the institutions which helped to form him. Almost everyone does this now. What Tory candidate (other than Boris Johnson) expresses a proper pride in having been educated at one of the great schools of England? While working on this article, I heard of a Tory MP so pusillanimous that he said he would not contribute to an appeal by a local independent school with which he had close ties, because he was frightened the news of his donation might leak out.
There used to be an unembarrassed loyalty to the institutions (not necessarily at all grand) to which one belonged: school, club, regiment. Every town contained gentlemen’s outfitters which sold the ties, blazers and other insignia which went with these things: a kind of middle-class heraldry. The shops themselves were often adorned with shields: Dunn & Co, which went out of business in 1996, was one such. Here was a shop of magnificent dowdiness, where any self-respecting member of UKIP wishes he could still shop. But who else would now think of buying, let alone wearing an old school tie, at least for any event not actually taking place at the dear old school itself?
From a political point of view, it is entirely right that the Conservatives should concentrate on the reform of state schools, which educate about 93 per cent of the population. Any suggestion that the party only cares about independent schools, or believes only that kind of school can be any good, would be disastrous.
Which is why the idea first floated by Matthew Parris, and recently taken up by Tim Montgomerie in his new venture, TheGoodRight, would be unlikely to be received with universal approval. They propose:
“All private schools, both boarding and day schools, all of which are charities, should be forced by law to accept 25 per cent of their intake as scholarship boys and girls, funded by the state on a means-tested basis.”
The trouble with this idea is not that the private schools would object to such interference (though they would), but that the state schools (as one teacher in a comprehensive put it to me) would see it as a way of creaming off their most gifted pupils, while removing a large chunk of public money and leaving the other pupils to sink or swim.
Michael Gove took, as Education Secretary, a different and more profitable approach. As he said in a speech given in February 2014:
“My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England, standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee-paying independent.”
By reforms such as giving head teachers the autonomy they would enjoy in the private sector, recruiting excellent new teachers, increasing the rigour of exams, and introducing a richer range of “character-building” activities alongside the academic curriculum, Gove set out to bring about “the strange death of the sink school”.
Supposing his reforms lead to that desirable outcome: what then? Here I confess that I had not really been paying attention to what he was saying, for example in the New Statesman in February 2014. He pointed out, in this piece, that the original purpose of our best known private schools – to educate “poor scholars” – has been lost, and lamented that educational segregation is “wasting talent on an unforgiveable scale”.
The then Education Secretary added that 16 formerly fee-paying schools, including Liverpool College and King’s, Tynemouth, had entered the state system since 2010. This is a development ardently promoted by the Labour architect of academy schools, Lord Adonis.
Gove opposes the “sheer scale, the breadth and depth of private school dominance of our society”, and maintains that “stratification and segregation are morally indefensible”.
He is not the only Conservative to think so. Sir John Major has said it is “truly shocking” that “the upper echelons of power are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated”.
There is a school of thought within the Conservative Party which holds that there has been a hollowing out of British society, with the respectable middle classes no longer able to afford to send their children to fee-paying schools.
Such Conservatives tend to believe that fee-paying schools are now the preserve of oligarchs, and that these establishments tend, with a few admirable exceptions, to concentrate on their own selfish concerns, and make only token efforts to serve the wider community.
There is a tendency, discernible also in the media, to treat the most famous boarding schools, with fees of over £30,000 a year, as if they were typical of the whole sector. The famous picture taken at the Eton-Harrow match in 1937, of two Harrovians in top hats being regarded with derision by three urchins, is still used to illustrate innumerable articles about class and the public schools, despite being almost 80 years out of date.
Charlotte Vere, of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), pointed out in a recent piece for the Daily Telegraph that only an eighth of the pupils at independent schools are boarders: far from being typical, these very expensive schools are the exception. Nor are more than a small proportion of their pupils foreigners, or the children of oligarchs.
The ISC intends to launch, by the end of March, a website on which its 1250 members will be able to upload details of their local partnerships. Vere warns that schools must have the freedom to work out these local arrangements without being dictated to by the Government, or the whole thing will not work.
In a recent report for the ISC, Oxford Economics estimated that independent schools contribute £9.5 billion to GDP, support 227,000 jobs and save the taxpayer £3 billion a year (by educating just over half a million children who would otherwise have to be educated at public expense).
In other words, these schools are in many ways outstandingly successful. And yet this very success is an affront to the spirit of equality which pervades democratic life. Their pupils do so well in later life, and carry off so many of the glittering prizes, that independent schools stand convicted of conferring an unfair advantage on those lucky enough to attend them.
The Tory answer to this conundrum was given in 2009 by the Mayor of London, in conversation with Mary Wakefield of the Spectator.
Wakefield: ‘What do you think about the idea of making all state schools independent charities with almost no regulation?’
Johnson: ‘Sounds groovy. But the answer, as everybody knows but dare not admit, is to allow state schools the freedom once again to select on the basis of academic merit. Everything else is just blah. Look at what is happening to social mobility. Look at the way the fee-paying schools are lengthening their lead…What a disaster, and what putrid hypocrisy on the part of the entire British ruling class, who either use private tutors, or else send them to private school.’
So there’s an idea for a second term.