Against the interests of οι πολλοι

This is a guest post by bill.

Let me start with a warning. Some of you will be offended by the very fact I exist and have been asked to write the following about the plans to get public schools to lend their teachers to the state sector. You see, I went to one of those public schools and – just to boost my popularity further – I’d cross the road to avoid westerners with an obsessive interest in the Middle East (no matter which side). If this inherently bothers you, you know where to go.

For the rest of you, please trust me when I tell you that the last thing the country needs is a further injection of the public school spirit. I’ve argued previously, that the country has been ill-served by public schools (article here, to save me the trouble of writing it out again). It’s bad enough that these peculiar institutions are being exported wholesale to the Far East: probably the last part of the earth that needs more rigid hierarchies, arcane rituals and hot beds of sexual deviance.

There are other reasons to wonder whether an influx of public school teachers into the state system, is really going to address the fundamental problems in the state system. For one thing, it’s worth pointing out that public schools (where the cult of the amateur still holds sway) don’t need to bother about trivialities such as qualifications when hiring staff. They can pick whom so ever they please.

Now, that public schools provide a sort of care home and shelter for alcoholic deadbeats, pederasts, otherwordly, failed academics and people who simply cannot survive outside the public school world is a charity, of a sort, but these are precisely the last people I would pick to “sort out” a failing inner city comp.

A quick trawl through the archives reveals that public school teachers are as likely as not (if not more so) than indulge in inappropriate behaviour, kiddy fiddling, ineptitude, ungentlemanly behaviour and so on.

While I’m not convinced about this well-intentioned, but not thoroughly-thought-through initiative, Alan Johnson’s comments point to a much broader problem: the unfair advantages public schools have over the rest of the education system. This is what parents are paying for: the chance to buck the system and, if their kid is not-too bright a chance for him or her to be spoon-fed and coaxed through the exam system.

It’s probably no accident that Johnson chose the Torygraph to discuss this: it sends the message that he’s not irredeemably hostile to public schools but is hinting, really quite forcefully, that they need to do more for society at large. The most eye-catching part of the interview is this:

The only time Mr Johnson sounds like a class warrior is over private schools. “They need to do more to earn their charitable status,” he insists.

“The original purpose of schools like Dulwich College was to educate the poor. Private schools in general have lost that sense and need to recapture it. It’s not enough to lend their playing fields, it’s about opening up their science labs, lending their teachers to the state sector, sponsoring academies and forming trusts. Schools like Eton could be doing more.”

I don’t have to be quite so conciliatory, so let me put it more bluntly. Charitable status is a massive con trick on the British taxpayer which skews an already unfair system more in the favour of the powerful and wealthy. Institutions which charge fees most people (myself included) cannot afford are getting tax breaks estimated to cost £100m a year. Admittedly the schools do provide scholarships and assistance to the less well off, but the fact that a fewer poorer kids get to benefit doesn’t mean that most poorer kids aren’t losing out here. They are – and we’re subsidising this inequitable system.

Of course, it’s simplistic to suppose that simply abolishing this tax break would see a flood of money into the state system, all of which would be spent wisely to ensure better schools for all, but that’s not a reason for keeping it.

Nor is it a surprise that the public schools would fight tooth and nail to keep charitable status. They’d be damn fools if they didn’t look to their own interests. (Just as I’d be a damn fool if I didn’t take the opportunity to brazenly plug my own take on public school weirdness – almost all the bits people will find offensive are taken from real life, I assure you). Public schools were, after all, caught indulging a blatant bit of racketeering a couple of years ago. Amusingly, when they got caught out, Eton was the first to rat. First rule of life: never trust an Etonian.

That’s why, for all that the Tory leadership has had an outbreak of common sense over grammar schools, they’re never going to point out the obvious fact that the schools which produced so many of them are part of a system which works against the interests of οι πολλποι. And with the Labour leadership appearing indifferent to the fact, it’s refreshing to see someone like Johnson (one of the few cabinet ministers with the sense to acknowledge the folly of segregating children according to their parents’ real or affected religious beliefs) at least acknowledging the fact. Of course, just as he was forced to climb down over faith schools, his comments about not wanting to commit political suicide appear to suggest that he might go the same way on this one. Pity.

By the time all those spiffy public-school educated Chinese chaps are the top dogs in the world, someone in Britain might even have got round to doing something about it.