A young acquaintance of Malcolm’s works in a local education authority, in the stockbroker belt. She is therefore able to reckon when the recession started to bite. It was the start of the present school year.
Her office was inundated by applications for transfers. From private education to the mainstream.
Now, here’s a curious thing: with precious few exceptions, the mothers (and it was, typically, the mothers who initiated the contact) assumed that their offspring could pick-and-choose the school they would attend.
Only when the difficulties (over-full rolls, late applications, waiting-lists for popular schools) had been made clear, only then did the fathers bulldoze in, often with the omnibus explanations:
- Do you know who I am?
- I want you to know I am personally acquainted with … (fill in the MP, the Chief Constable, the Leader of the Council, — any other head-cook or bottle-washer whose name could be invoked).
Still no dice.
Which is why the page 3 spread in today’s Times is quite instructive.
First there is the intriguing re-edit of the newsprint headline:
State grammar schools top for A levels
When this reaches the net, it is merely a prologue to the school league tables (which are promised on the printed page as Online this morning: the full tables). By now the headline is:
School League tables:
State grammar schools beat private sector for A levels
Struggling private sector is outperformed
There would seem to be an ideological shift here, because what Malcolm read seemed to be a “feel good about it” exoneration for guilt-stricken bourgeois parents:
Grammar school pupils outperformed their privately educated counterparts at A level by a record margin last summer, piling more pressure on the beleaguered fee-paying sector.
As the recession forces many middle-class families to question whether they can afford private education, new figures reveal that the average grammar school pupil attained 73 more A-level points than those educated privately. The points system, in which an A grade is worth 270 points, is used by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to assess applications to higher education.
So, get little Tamsin or George into the grammar and — hey! you’re doing them a favour. It’s a leg-up. You’re improving their chances. You’re playing the game. And, because it’s the grammar, it’ll be families like yours: no oiks allowed.
All those grammar schools, and the “good” comprehensives are stuffed full. Classrooms creak with the addition of the extra desk. And that’s with the entrants who went the orthodox route of selection last year or whenever.
So, little Tamsin and George are probably out in the cold, at least during Key Stages 3 and 4. Provided they reach the standard (which increasingly looks like six to eight Grade As minimum) they may, no certainty, be welcome on the academic courses at post-16.
Which raises two issues:
- What are the fee-paying schools there for, if not to guarantee privilege for the nice-but-dim spawn of the aspiring classes?
- How long (and with what incalculable benefits to everyone) will it be before cadres of disappointed middle-class parents combine and “take over” the local, not-particularly-outstanding, and famously “bog-standard” school?
And also a problem:
- Who will stand up for Malcolm’s young acquaintance when the next Mercedes/SUV/Chelsea tractor pulls up, and the booted-and-suited, braying, pushy “I know my rights” type arrives at her office, aiming to pull weight?
For, as Alexandra Frean’s commentary says:
competition for places in England’s 164 state grammar schools will be tougher than ever, with thousands of children preparing to sit the 11-plus this month for a place. The problem for many parents is that, whereas sixth forms have no maximum numbers, grammar schools are not allowed to expand.
The best comprehensives have also had an increase in inquiries from parents who might otherwise go private. Last month in a survey of 150 councils by the Local Government Association 10 per cent reported that they had been contacted by fee-paying parents looking for places in state schools. Buckinghamshire, a grammar school county, has already had to find places for 130 children entering the state system.
Notice the sub-text there:
Now our sort want it, it’s time to expand.
Time and again, we hear just that assumption from Tory (and even some Labour) education “experts”. Allow a “free market”. Let the “good” schools expand, and the others go to the wall.
What happens to those trapped now, and for any interim, in the “bog-standard” schools?
Malcolm assumes, with the certainty of historic precedent to back him, that remedies will be proposed, even become Tory election slogans.
A few, a precious few, we band of privileged brothers, will be promised a bail-out by that nice Mr Gove.
But, of course, there will be the countervailing argument: it’s a time of financial stringency. Belts must be tightened. Public expenditure must be constrained.
So who pays the bill, then?
Malcolm worked most of four decades in the State secondary system, and has the scars to show for it.
He balefully believes that this comeuppance is long overdue for those who voted for Thatcherism, for sharing of tattered text-books, and for redecoration due once every second half-century. Perhaps, at last, thanks to the educational reforms and (above all) the investment since 1997, there will be a revelatory Leona Helmsley moment:
Like equality and taxes,
opportunity and state schooling
are not just for the “little people”.