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Chris McGovern: Blair pulled up the ladder of social mobility. Now the bright and the average both suffer


The best independent schools are becoming more and more socially exclusive. That, at least, is the view of Ukip leader Nigel Farage in his new book, The Purple Revolution. The former Dulwich College pupil recalls sitting between the son of a global chief executive and a coal merchant’s son, during his time at the school. This social mix came courtesy of a local authority bursary scheme, the so-called “Dulwich Experiment’, which supported able children from poor backgrounds. It was started by Labour in the late 1940s. Later, a national version – the ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ – was set up by Margaret Thatcher. This ladder of social mobility was eventually pulled away by ex-public schoolboy, Tony Blair.

Independent schools offer their own bursaries and scholarships, of course, but what they can afford is limited. Under-privileged kids are thinner on the ground these days. More often than not their places have been taken by the offspring of rich foreign oligarchs who know a good thing when they see it. They want the best and, for once, the best happens to be British.

Sadly, the best that can be offered to most of the able pupils from the lower reaches of our own society is a ‘bog standard comp’. The door to fulfilling potential really is closed. True, we have some good comprehensives and a few remaining grammar schools but these tend to be in middle class areas and are mostly full of middle class children. Selection by post code and, therefore by income, is the norm.

Most of us would like to see a fairer system. Surely, all children should be educated in line with their ability in order to fulfil their potential. A majority of the public would like to see more grammar schools for that very reason. Alongside grammar schools for academic pupils, we need top quality vocational or technical schools for children whose abilities are more practical. In most countries around the world, ‘vocational’ qualifications are seen as, at least, the equal of ‘academic’ qualifications. Few things hold back our economic development and social cohesion, as the peculiarly British educational snobbery that ‘academic’ is superior to ‘practical’. Brunel or the Brontes? Berners-Lee or Balzac? Benz or Brecht? In educational terms they are equal in importance. In earning potential, of course, and in economic terms, the practical skills win ‘hands down’.

In order to prevent the waste of talent identified by Nigel Farage, state education should offer a choice of pathways through secondary schooling – academic and vocational. It would be possible, and comparatively inexpensive, for this choice to be provided within existing comprehensive schools if they were organised on bi-lateral lines. Alternatively, we need existing schools to convert to academic (grammar) or vocational (technical). The latter would need a greater percentage of available funding since ‘vocational’ training needs both more resources and the money to ‘buy in’ support from employers.

For the future of our country, we should not be contesting the merits or demerits of academic selection. We should be debating the best age at which pupils should follow an academic or a vocational pathway. Much might be learnt here from the independent sector where a transfer to secondary education at age 13, is common.

Comprehensive? Bi-lateral? Grammar? Vocational? Who should decide?  Think-tank Civitas has just published a very interesting series of essays entitled, The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools.  At the book’s launch in the House of Commons the other day, I suggested to Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, that these issues would be best decided by parents at local level. He strongly agreed, even he if may not have understood the full implications of his agreement.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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