The Oxbridge war on private schools doesn’t help the poor – it punishes families who put education before houses and holidays, writes PETER HITCHENS
You can be privileged in Britain but only if you have the brass neck to pretend that you aren’t. Increasingly, parents who strain their budgets to the limit to pay private school fees are being punished for their thrift and responsibility.
Their children are rejected for Oxbridge university places and jobs for which they are well qualified. Applicants from state schools are preferred for political reasons, as if this was a People’s Republic. What began a few years ago as an elusive trend has now become very hard to ignore.
A recent Freedom of Information survey of 50 leading private schools found that their pupils’ overall chance of getting an Oxford or Cambridge offer has fallen by one third in five years. The change followed soon after the two ancient universities – which deny that they are discriminating against private school pupils – began to use ‘contextual’ selection methods.
Yet Professor Stephen Toope, who has just stepped down as head of Cambridge University, has said: ‘We have to keep making it very, very clear we are intending to reduce over time the number of people who are coming from independent school backgrounds into places like Oxford or Cambridge.’
Professor Stephen Toope, who has just stepped down as head of Cambridge University, has said: ‘We have to keep making it very, very clear we are intending to reduce over time the number of people who are coming from independent school backgrounds into places like Oxford or Cambridge’
Whatever is actually going on, egalitarian zealots applaud and encourage this behaviour. The Labour MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy once said: ‘The upper classes have a vice-like grip on Oxford admissions that they will not willingly give up.’
This sort of talk treats the suburban middle class as if they were privileged billionaire aristocrats rather than men and women who work and save, and put schooling before big houses, holidays and expensive cars and clothes.
It is in line with the modern idea of ‘social mobility’ which has much more to do with punishing the conservative middle class than with helping the poor. And it means that universities and employers are urged to shun applicants with obvious middle-class backgrounds, even if they are better qualified.
The new regime snubs and rejects well-educated young men and women who have in many cases come from homes where the parents made major sacrifices for the sake of their education.
Despite this, the country remains as privileged as it ever was, with the new noisily Left-wing elite well versed in the methods needed to come out on top. The actual poor are still terribly treated, as they have been since state grammar schools, which selected on merit rather than money, were almost all destroyed in the 1960s.
Try this story, as an example. You would have thought it was bad enough that Anthony Blair sent two of his sons to a totally exceptional state school, the London Oratory, miles from where he lived. By doing so, he tacitly accepted that the local comprehensive schools were not good enough for him. As so often, some are more equal than others. But, in 2002, he did something even more shocking. He hired teachers from the hugely expensive private school, Westminster, to give his boys extra tuition for their A-levels.
After five years in office, chanting ‘Education! Education! Education!’, he was accepting the truth that all informed people know. Comprehensive state education is a disaster, especially for the poor. Even at its top end it cannot do the job properly. As a result many (though not all) of the private schools hugely outperform most state comprehensives, and so do the few remaining state grammar schools.
But the future Sir Tony was not admitting it openly, just in his actions. Shouldn’t he have used the schools he said he wanted all others to attend, if they were so good? But, of course, he knew they were not good. So instead he used the Oratory, officially a comprehensive. Is it really one? When I once suggested it wasn’t, the Blairs came after me, until I agreed to say that it was a comprehensive in the same way that 10 Downing Street is an inner-city terrace house.
This is always the way socialist utopians behave. When their utopia does not work, they find ways to escape it for themselves, leaving the rest of us to cope with the mess. The English state school system is, in fact, crammed with secret privilege, for those in the know, who have the money to pay for it and the sharp elbows to exploit it.
The new regime snubs and rejects well-educated young men and women who have in many cases come from homes where the parents made major sacrifices for the sake of their education (file photo of the University of Cambridge)
The Sutton Trust and Teach First, neither of them organisations of the Right, have produced research showing that the best ‘comprehensives’ are in fact highly socially selective. There is also no way of knowing how many of the exam results of the better ‘comprehensives’ in well-off areas are achieved by private tuition, Blair-style. Nobody is obliged to record it.
In 2017 the Sutton Trust reported that more than 85 per cent of the highest-performing state schools took in fewer disadvantaged pupils than they should have for their catchment area. They also found there was a ‘house price premium’ of about 20 per cent attached to living in the right area for a successful, highly rated comprehensive school. A typical house in such a catchment area at that time cost about £45,700 more than the average property in the same local authority.
Teach First reported in the same year that 43 per cent of pupils at England’s outstanding state secondary schools were from the wealthiest 20 per cent of families. Poorer pupils were half as likely as the richest to be heading to outstanding secondary schools.
Blair, in the days when he hired private tutors for his boys, was head of the Labour Party, the same party which had imposed supposedly equal comprehensive education on England, Wales and Scotland. His government made it illegal to open new state grammar schools, so ensuring that there was almost no escape – for most people – from the comprehensive disaster.
You would have thought it was bad enough that Anthony Blair sent two of his sons to a totally exceptional state school, the London Oratory, miles from where he lived
Most do not have the skills or the money to navigate the ‘comprehensive’ system as elite Leftists so often manage to do. No wonder so many parents, who could not really afford it, went private. But now their children suffer for their parents’ sacrifices.
To make things worse still, Blair’s Chancellor and future successor, Gordon Brown, picked a foolish quarrel with Oxford’s Magdalen College in 2000, for rejecting a state-school-educated candidate, Laura Spence. He alleged, without real evidence, that this showed prejudice against state school applicants. But despite the poverty of his arguments, his action may well have succeeded in scaring Oxbridge academics into a real prejudice against private schools.
A-level marks have been so telescoped by falling school standards that they are not much of an objective guide, failing to distinguish between the excellent and the merely good. This makes it far easier to select on ‘contextual’ grounds rather than hard grades.
You may be sure that the children of the liberal elite, while they rail against supposed private school privilege, are doing all that they can, by professing strong religious faith or moving into costly catchment areas, or by hiring tutors, to put their own children on the magic carpet to Oxbridge, via state schools which are comprehensive only in theory.
Privilege, in decline in the great days of the state grammar schools in the 1960s, is back with a bang.
Peter Hitchens’s new book, A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked The British Education System, is published later this month.
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