My parents, as they reminded me from time to time, made sacrifices to educate me privately in the 1950s and 1960s. As Max Hastings points out in The Times today this was just about affordable for them then but today, other things being equal, it would not be. Perhaps 5% of the population can enjoy the advantages of the schooling I had.
My old school has magnificent facilities, good teachers, co-education (an advance on my time) and outstanding examination results. Left Wing firebrand and campaigning atheist the late Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter went there in my day. Curiously Christopher is quite complimentary about the school in his writings (even the then mandatory twice daily chapel services) whereas to mention it to Peter is a red rag to a bull.
If I had had children (which I didn’t ) and if I could have afforded to (unlikely) I would have sent my son or daughter (or both) to The Leys School. My politics have always been strongly anti Conservative so there’s plenty of hypocrisy in this admission. It would have been partly tradition (my father and uncle were both at the school) , partly pride and a rather boastful indulgence. I would have said, of course, that I just wanted to do the best for my child as my father had for me.
In education Britain is now three nations – a change from Disraeli’s two. There’s the 5% at the “top” who can afford independent schools. Then the rest of the middle classes who can afford the high house prices of living in postcodes with good state schools nearby. Then there is the proletariat who have to rely on bog standard comprehensives. Our education problem is not caused by the 5% at the top – elitist though this may be. (Actually the fact that these children place no burden on the state education budget could be seen as a benefit to the taxpayer).
The problem is that there is inconsistency of standards in the state system which reinforces class and regional inequalities. The High School Academy just down the road from me in the London Borough of Richmond has good facilities and good exam results. We live in the heart of middle class privilege which sets an educational standard that far exceeds that of less privileged parts of the country.
Tony Blair was right to prioritise “Education, Education, Education” but neither he nor his successors have cracked the system. There is no equality of opportunity. Most parents pay for educational advantage for their children in a different way from my parents in the Molesworth era. The independent sector is an indulgence for very, very few. The real challenge lies elsewhere.