Kevin Riley: Stop attacking public schools and widen access

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IT has been interesting to read Michael Gove’s comments on the number of Old Etonians in David Cameron’s inner circle.

“It is preposterous…It doesn’t make me feel personally uncomfortable because I like each of the individuals concerned, but it’s ridiculous. I don’t know where you can find some such similar situation in a developed economy,” said the Education Secretary.

Others have endorsed these remarks, like the Tory peer and minister Baroness Warsi of Dewsbury.

Eton College is the most famous school in the world; internationally it is seen as most people’s idea of a traditional British public school education.

It is often represented by the iconic (notorious?) picture from the 1930s of two Etonians in full uniform outside Lord’s Cricket Ground being watched in puzzled amusement by three ‘ordinary’ boys.

Indeed the photograph is often used to accompany any piece about independent schools, especially if the desire is to emphasise ‘privilege’ or ‘exclusivity’. One irony is that the students in the picture were actually Harrovians….

Internationally, many might turn Mr Gove’s final comment into a plus for Britain. The argument would run: if you have the best school in the world, would you not want its alumni to serve in Government? Isn’t it a good thing that the school encourages public service? Moreover Prince William and Prince Harry, both admired for their ease with people and for being the “modern” face of monarchy, are Old Etonians.

So why has Mr Gove got the school in his sights? The underlying issue, of course, is access. Seven per cent of students are educated in independent schools but in many professions the percentage of those educated in such schools is much higher.

Social mobility is being stunted runs the argument by parents “buying” privilege for their children; the country is being dominated by a self-perpetuating minority. We are not making the most of the talent in the country.

It is certainly the case that any country which does not have a successful system of school education is storing up trouble for the future.

The educational success of countries and cities in the Far East is in enabling large numbers of any cohort to achieve success in demanding exams.

How they achieve this is open to interpretation (Shanghai has highly selective schools) but it represents a stark contrast to Britain in macro-economic terms.

Governments cannot ignore the fact that they damaged social mobility by removing state funding for places at independent schools.

Until 1975, Bradford Grammar School was a direct grant school and supported by local authority scholarships.

In September of that year, some 45 students on free places entered the school. Nearly 40 years later, the school itself supports students on bursaries from its own funds at a cost of nearly £1m per year.

It is committed to its long tradition of academic excellence being available to able students on the basis of academic potential rather than on the ability to pay.

The state has the ability to fund students at independent schools; it could transfer the funding allocation that they would take to a state school to an independent school. It resolutely refuses to do so. That would be transformational in terms of access.

Last month the papers were full of a different story about Eton: “The schoolboy son of an Ethiopian immigrant from one of London’s poorest boroughs is to follow in the footsteps of David Cameron and 18 other British prime ministers after winning a prestigious place at Eton.

“Ishak Ayiris, 15, will swap an impoverished East End council estate in Newham for the hallowed halls of the world-famous public school after winning a two-year scholarship.”

It’s a story of aspiration, of determination and of a school committing funds to support a deserving student.

Governments of all persuasions need to stop attacking the success of Britain’s world class independent schools and seek to help them widen access. We will know we have succeeded when a student like Ishak Ayiris becomes Prime Minister.