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Building palaces

In recent months my wife and I have re-watched, not for the first time, all seven series of the West Wing. In the first series there is an episode where Mallory, daughter of the Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, berates Sam Seaborn for a position paper he has written advocating private school vouchers.

Sam defends his position for most of the episode, much to Mallory’s annoyance. Eventually Leo reveals to his daughter, who teaches in a public school (in the American sense), that the paper is just opposition research – it doesn’t represent Sam’s true views. She confronts Sam, who tells her:

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

It’s a position that’s hard to disagree with. Our schools should be like palaces, but they are not. They are a long way from it and if reports are to be believed funding for schools is shrinking. The Guardian ran a story on 28 April about a husband and wife, who are head and deputy head of a primary school in Buckinghamshire. The couple have recently announced their intention to resign their positions and leave education. In a letter to parents they pointed to a number of concerns, including school funding:

The freezing of school budgets, which have meant significant cuts in real terms, have left school leaders with often impossible choices to make. Which staff do you make redundant? Which subjects do you cut? Which child with an identified special educational need do you select to stop receiving support? These are not decisions that we believe are in educational or developmental interests of children, nor should school leaders have to be making them in what is one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

A few days earlier on 25 April, the New Statesman reported the Institute for Fiscal Studies as announcing spending will fall in real terms by 6.5% by 2020 –the steepest cut since the 1990s. They added that the National Audit Office has predicted that schools must find savings of £3 billion by 2019/20.

If only we had politicians, like those good-hearted folk on the West Wing. I suspect we do, but the reality is so much more difficult. In fact, I suspect our politicians are probably a cut above those on the West Wing. After seven seasons, the education problem was no closer to being solved and indeed it was largely forgotten amongst the chaos of political intrigue and back-biting.

The problem politicians face is that people want better schools, better hospitals, better trains, but there is sense they are not keen to pay for them. Perhaps this is why politicians talk about social mobility rather than social equality. It’s a cheaper way to try and make the system fairer.

There has been quite a hoo-ha going on in the press over independent schools recently and interestingly this has raised the issue of social mobility versus social equality. It started with an opinion piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian (21 April), where he argued for the abolition of independent schools. His point was that social mobility is most severely hampered by social capital – the middle classes have it and they use it to their advantage. He freely admits to using it himself, but he says:

This entrenched and inevitable advantage is, perversely, why I oppose private schools far more firmly than grammar schools (which, at least in theory, could be meritocratic). It is not that I hope to take away from privileged children any unfair head start. I just want to take away the only advantage that is purely down to money and entirely subject to legislation.

This has led to debate about not only social equality, but also to discussion over what would happen to maintained schools if independent schools were abolished. Would the Government be able to afford the additional costs? It is estimated that independent schools save the Exchequer £3.9 billion annually (April 2014 report by Oxford Economics). On the other hand, some feel that releasing middle class parents into the maintained sector would help to drive up standards. They point to the high-performing Finnish system which abolished independent schools in the 1970s.

This debate will no doubt rumble on and in the end none of us really has the answers. I would agree with Sam’s statement to Mallory that our schools should be palaces, but I can’t see how this can be achieved by tearing down the independent institutions which offer an education admired, envied and copied around the world. Maintained and independent schools have a lot to learn from each other, but at the end of the day it is independent schools who provide the broad education which best prepares young people for the rigours and challenges of the modern world.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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1 Comment

  • Pippa Reid says:

    Well said! We wouldn’t be able to afford a place for our daughter with your school without the help offered via bursary/scholarship. Having worked in a mainstream school I know she would struggle and not achieve anywhere near her full potential. I believe there are many lessons to be learnt across education but do feel the time has come to press the government for pupil premium/free school meal allocation to poorer but talented children seeking places in independent schools.

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