Private schooling, public money

15Aug11

So then … A Level results out this week.

There was a very slight kerfuffle on the internet the other day when a Financial Times journalist said he’d been approached by a PR for Badminton School basically offering to pimp out their pupils for a photo-shoot on A Level results day.

In case you can’t access the original, the FT journalist says:

Last year, I received an unsolicited voicemail from the press liaison at Badminton School in Bristol: “Hi Chris, . . .Just wanting to give you some details of some absolutely beyootiful girls we’ve got here who are getting their A-level results tomorrow. Some lovely stories . . . They’re amazing girls.”

In itself this is no big deal. Everyone knows the media goes mad for A Level results precisely because it’s an opportunity to run lots of photos of teenage girls getting excited.

But it does contain a fascinating kernel of insight into the state of secondary education in Bristol right now.

Badminton is a boarding and day school in Bristol, one of the top girls’ schools in the country. It gets excellent exam results and has an impressive roster of alumni, from Iris Murdoch to Indira Gandhi. Back in the day it was famously liberal with an international outlook (Polly Toynbee is another Old Gel) and there are still some vestiges of this progressivism, though let’s not get carried away here.

Of course disproportionately large numbers of Badminton girls are beyootiful. They have the confidence and poise of the wealthy, not to mention the best orthodontistry (and other medical and cosmetic attention) money can buy, plus an excellent academic education.

The other reason they’re so personable is on account of the boarding school’s secret weapon. A secret weapon politicians and defenders of the state education sector don’t dare think about.

Sport.

Badminton pupils are put through a lot of physical exercise every single day. All that hockey and tennis and swimming and lacrosse and whatnot keeps ’em fit, and it’s good for the brain. Mens sans in corpore sano and all that.

Imagine if the pupils of Britain’s state schools had to do 60-90 minutes of compulsory exercise every single day what it might ultimately do for their health, self-esteem, academic performance, not to mention the ultimate long-term benefits to the NHS’s finances?

Just saying.

Folks of the progressive political persuasion don’t like private schools. But people will always want to do the best for their own children, and you can’t blame anyone for that.

And at least these parents are paying. What’s happened in Bristol more recently is much more alarming. Basically we have a group of middle class types trying to get the state to pay for what amounts to a private education by the back door.

Rewind a little; back in the boom times, a lot of families in North Bristol (as elsewhere in the country) went private because they felt they could afford it. Many parents simply put the school fees onto the mortgage, because they thought that rising property prices meant you could pay the fees simply on the equity in even a modest suburban semi.

Many Bristol state schools performed poorly in the exam league tables, and the city always had more private schools than most. But come the downturn, school fees hit the lower middle classes hard.

The system adapted. The hitherto private Cathedral School and Colston’s Girls’ School opted back into state funding by becoming academies with amusing haste. These schools had, and have, subtle means of ensuring that their intake and ethos will never be comprehensive. One by specialising in music, the other specialising in languages. And all the myriad little signals they send out … Few families from outlying estates are going to send their kids to places where they fear their children will not fit in.

There had also been a vigorous campaign for a new state secondary school for NW Bristol. A new school was needed in that particular area, and so Redland Green school opened in 2006, £6m over budget … And with an entirely middle class catchment area.

But at least you could have demonstrated a geographical need for a school somewhere in that approximate area.

But now we’re supposed to fund a school for which there is no need whatever.

Despite the availability of plenty of state school places elsewhere, a group of parents got together to campaign for one of Michael Gove’s “Free schools” on the site of the old St Ursula’s private school in Westbury-on-Trym.

St Ursula’s was another casualty of the downturn, a private school which closed down last year. One of the points to bear in mind with private schools is that they partly achieve good exam results by only recruiting bright kids in the first place via entrance exams. St Ursula’s did not have an entrance exam; it’d take anyone who could pay, but it still went out of business.

The tale of wrangling between the campaigners and the council over the St Ursula’s site is too tedious to relate, but a Free School is due to open on former government office premises close by this autumn and may be taking over some/all of the elegant Victorian convent buildings (which are now owned by the Council) of St U’s next year.

The free school is loudly proclaiming its “unashamed focus on traditional subjects”.

(That’ll be Latin, then, a language few kids of any class are any good at, but which for 2,000 years has been the European language of power. Once because it was the language of the ruling Empire, then the language of the church and now the basis of a proper authoritative command of English. Every kid should have the chance to try Latin as it shows you what goes on under the bonnet of the English language.)

Meanwhile the head of the nearby (state) Henbury School rightly points out that the Free School will impact on her intake, even though she has plenty of spaces available. The free school is, she says, “simply pandering to social prejudices.” More here. 

The funny bit being that Henbury, like every other Bristol state secondary, was rebuilt under an expensive and secretive PFI arrangement. It has to be paid for even if it’s empty.

In a time of austerity and government cuts, it makes no sense whatsoever to open another school which will, one suspects, use various subtle means to communicate to working class families that their children won’t fit in.

And of course if a third or so the parents who send their kids to the free school were to go to horrid, oiky Henbury School instead, it would transform the atmosphere and exam results of the latter within a few years.

Britain in general, and Bristol in particular, has been scandalously ill-served by both Labour and Conservative education policies. The Tories never gave a damn about anyone other than the well-off, while it was Labour’s control freakery, bureaucracy and bogus commitment to equality at the cost of excellence that got us into this mess.

The Tories used to get all nostalgic over grammar schools as a way of bringing on bright working-class kids. They were right, in a way. Everyone used to sit the eleven-plus exam to see if they were smart enough for a grammar school place. But the thing is, your real actual middle class parents nowadays would much rather not bring this system back because their children might fail a new eleven-plus. No, they would much sooner have schools which informally select by social class rather than ability.

That’s what we’re getting, and not only is it unfair but it’s economically insane. It’ll reinforce mediocrity and waste the talents of the smart kids from poorer backgrounds.

We’re creating a system of apartheid based on class rather than colour, and you and me are paying for it.

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4 Responses to “Private schooling, public money”

  1. 1 Mossrogers

    I get a bit stressed about schools. Here in South Bristol I don’t fancy any of our secondary choices. I’d love to send the kids to our nearest secondary school but I won’t be able to get them in because I’m not a regular church goer.

    Despite being dirt poor my mum got a great grammar school education. I say bring back the grammar schools. Better selection by ability than selection by postcode.

  2. I’ve been banging on in a similar vein for years. This is about the only issue that gets me all Dave Spart. So, mr and Mrs Middle Class and Anxious, stop bussing your kids out to the leafy rural schools, and use your local comp – and if you don’t rate it, become a governor or do whatever else it takes, but don’t sit and bleat about failing schools when by removing your children you are a)contributing to the very idea of failing which you subscribe to and b) giving your children the same prejudices you so clearly exhibit yourself. Poor government, poor parents and the ludicrous idea of “choice” gave got us here

  3. 3 thebristolblogger

    Prejudice against mediocrity is a good thing.

  4. 4 Art of the Impossible

    You’ve hit it on the head, Eugene, why the nice people got rid of grammar schools. They couldn’t stand it when their little darlings didn’t get where they assumed it was their right to be, and were sick to see any ‘oiks’ from the local council estate get in instead.

    It’s only stupid notions that somehow book learning is better than craft and technical skill that changed what should have been a system of equal but different into one of superior/inferior. Sad.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tripartite_System


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