Complacent, us?

四月 30, 1999

Too many in education prefer the status quo to thinking about solutions, writes former Tory minister George Walden

Writing your memoirs reminds you to count your educational blessings. Mine was a lucky era. My first school was on a council estate in Essex. The pre-tower- block estate was drug-free and the primary taught the basics well, which later helped me get into Latymer Upper, Hammersmith (then direct grant). Thence I went to Cambridge, then into the foreign office as a Russian and Chinese specialist in the cold war. I did not appreciate the advantages at university as much as I should have (regular tuitions, a full grant, plus Pounds 2 a gig as a drummer in the university jazz band) but I do today.

In our more advanced, more democratic times, I would probably still be on my estate. The Plowden report would have turned the primary school into a Wendy house, Latymer would have been closed to me (comprehensivisation forced it to go private), and Cambridge would have been a dream (there are now more private school pupils there than 30 years ago). I do not believe in golden ages. I know we must look after the many, not just the few. And I realise there can be no going back to old-fashioned grammars or, with a million students, to grants. But I cannot help wondering how many children get the chance to escape their (no doubt crime-ridden) council estates today.

All this influenced my thinking on education and made me aware of those less lucky than myself. When I gave up Parliament, Jim Callaghan chided me for leaving, and it has been suggested that, if I had ideas about education, I should have kept my safe seat to fight for them.

I am not insensitive to the accusation. So let's imagine that I had stayed on. Suppose I had kept my nose clean and that the Great Lady had misguidedly promoted me, the minister for higher education, to secretary of state, and that I had continued as opposition spokesman after Labour won. Just suppose. And suppose I had come to the conclusion (which in fact I had) that three things were essential for the future health of our schools and universities:

* Expensive reforms of comprehensives, involving diversification on a German model, with entry by aptitude to more specialist schools, and paying teachers enough to attract a better qualified applicant than the lamentable two Ds at A level the salary attracts, on average, at present

* A voluntary opening-up of private day schools to all talents, for which many independent heads are ready. Without it the most powerful in society will continue to boycott state schools, even reformed. Condemned to second-rate status, most will stay sunk in their egalitarian, anti-elite resentments

* Tuition fees to be paid by students at a rate to provide a steep increase in university finances, and better salaries.

How far would I have got with my cabinet colleagues on the first two fronts? On private schools, the official doctrine (as in Labour) remains that state schools will be improved to the point where there is no need to go private. At best this is Panglossian, at worst an intellectual lie.

On tuition fees, my colleagues would have been more receptive. But legislation would have been virulently opposed by the opposition, not to speak of academia, on the shamefully mendacious grounds that the poor would not be able to afford the loans - mendacious because students, even poorer ones, would not have to repay anything until they had graduated and reached a certain income.

So Her Majesty's putative secretary of state would have spent his time blathering at the despatch box about how everything was progressing wonderfully, lauding the miraculous benefactions of the Assisted Places Scheme (in which he has never believed), and avoiding the truth about higher education: that the massive expansion of our universities is both underfunded and built on sand. Instead I would have insisted, against all evidence, that British universitiies were more than maintaining their quality.

Next, after Labour had won, it would be our turn to play silly buggers ("It is the duty of an opposition to oppose"). Such are the ways of our great and mature democracy that I would have found myself trotting through the lobbies to vote against the very tuition fees we had secretly been in favour of in office, but were too scared to introduce.

So what would I have achieved in ten years as Tory education spokesman? I know, politicians should be patient, a week is a long time etc. But spending ten years of your life poncing about the Commons, saying things you do not believe and voting against those you do, while academia calls you a Tory Philistine if you don't promise them the billions they want and the country has not got, is a very long time indeed.

Vita brevis - far too bloody brevis for dancing all those English adversarial minuets.

Politically I am out of it - I belong to no party - and relishing my freedom. I keep a hand in as an adviser to Peter Lampl, an educational philanthropist who made his fortune in Germany and America and was amazed at how little had changed when he came back. For years we all moaned (yes, me too) about the lack of comprehensive pupils getting into our best universities. (In Oxbridge, if you subtract the grammar schools as well as the private schools, the figure is disastrous - some 20 per cent). Lampl is acting. He has set up summer schools that demystify Oxbridge, give the pupils intensive teaching and encourage them to apply. The results are excellent. Next he is planning to open an independent school to all talents, on a pilot basis, in the hope that it will prove over time a model for the desegregation of our state-private system.

But this is elitism by another name! What about those who do not get in? How well I know those hypocritical voices, and how often they belong to people who were selectively educated themselves, and who privately do the same for their children. Then there are those who insist there is nothing wrong with standards, in our schools or universities. Well, if we are doing fine on the basis of current expenditure and current structures, why change anything? And why should anyone waste their time being a minister for education?

I met some fine people in education, yet there are too many who subconsciously prefer the status quo to thinking about solutions. That way they have a grouse for life, a little hoard of resentment about the iniquity of it all, to be passed on, lovingly, from generation to generation. "The self-sealing tanks of complacency'', Cyril Connolly called it. There comes a time when it is hard to stomach any more of those deft evasions, that smarmy populism, those weasly points about social class.

George Walden was minister for higher education from 1985 to 1987. His book Lucky George: Memoirs of an Anti-Politician, Penguin, Pounds 17.99, is published this week.

* Should students have to pay a lot more than Pounds 1,000 in tuition fees a year so that academics can be paid higher salaries? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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