A class apart



From 1991 to 1995 I attended Hethersett High School, a comprehensive in rural Norfolk, leaving with respectable GCSE results that enabled me to continue my education on to A levels and, later, university. 


Although I didnt think too much about it at the time, on the whole Hethersett was a good state school to attend.  And 13 years later, although Im told standards have dropped (dont they always?), Hethersett is still one of the better state schools in Norfolk.  According to its current prospectus the schools main aim is "to enable each student to acquire the knowledge and skills relevant to adult life, society and employment in a changing world."  A noble aim, and with 49 per cent of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs grade C or above (including English and Maths), the school has had moderate success doing this.


However, could my life, along with everyone else who has attended Hethersett, have run a different course?  What would I be doing now if my parents could have afforded the £5830 per term day fees (£7595 for boarders) at Greshams, a private school approximately twenty miles north of Hethersett?


Greshams glossy, full-colour prospectus (which includes a DVD) notes the schools ethos "is to focus on the needs of each and every child in our care, to recognise and nurture strengths and to do everything in our power to encourage our young people to become sensitive and resourceful individuals."  With an indoor shooting range, a 25-metre indoor pool, sailing facilities, two Astroturf pitches, a 300-seat theatre, an art gallery and a Combined Cadet Force, pupils at Greshams surely dont want for anything.  These superior facilities are matched by the schools exam results, with 97 per cent of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs grade C or above (including English and Maths) – nearly double the percentage of pupils at Hethersett.  Unsurprisingly, Greshams can boast of an alumni that has "shaped many facets of life in the UK and beyond", including the poet W H Auden, the filmmaker Stephen Frears and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson.


Considering New Labour pledged to "build new ladders of social mobility" in their 2005 manifesto, current Government’s policy is intensely relaxed about the educational segregation I have described above.  Lets not forget that, along with Tony Blair, Ruth Kelly and Harriet Harman, the so-called backbench rebel Diane Abbott sent her son to a private school, rather than to the local Hackney comprehensive.  In a brilliant example of cognitive dissonance, Abbot admitted at the time, "It is inconsistent, to put it mildly, for someone who believes in a fairer and more egalitarian society to send their children o a fee-paying school."


However, it is important to remember it wasnt always like this.  In 1980, a Labour Party discussion document argued private school fees "are the admission charge for a ruling elite whose wealth gives them the power… and the main means of transferring economic status, social position and influence from generation to generation".  It is for this reason, the document continues, "why the Labour Party finds the presence of the private schools in the education system so objectionable."


28 years later studies consistently show there continues to be significant advantages gained from a private education.  So while roughly only 7 per cent of children are educated privately, incredibly they take nearly half the places at Oxford and Cambridge.  Importantly, this over-representation is also evident in admissions to the Russell Group, the top 20 research universities in the UK, who actually saw an increase in the number of private school pupils they accepted last year.


Outside the education system in the big, bad – supposedly meritocratic – world a 2006 Sutton Trust study found that the private school system still exercises defacto suzerainty over the top jobs in law, politics, medicine, journalism and business in the UK – little changed from 20 years ago.  Fully 70 per cent of High Court judges today were privately educated, as are 54 per cent of FTSE 100 Chief Executives and 54 per cent of leading journalists.


Recent coverage of this issue in the mainstream media has thrown up several suggestions for reform, such as taking away private schools charitable status and improving the quality of state schools.  Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman, certainly wins points for originality with his intriguing idea to award places at the best universities to the top pupils in each of the UK sixth forms, regardless of absolute results.  As George Monbiot notes, Wilbys proposal would mean wealthy parents "would have a powerful incentive to send their children to schools with poor results, and then try to ensure that those schools acquired good resources and effective teachers."


Alan Bennett, author of the grammar school-set play The History Boys, goes further suggesting private schools should be scrapped because they are "a fissure running through British society". 


Whatever your opinion, one thing is certain: so long as the present educational apartheid continues radical social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.



Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. [email protected]. 


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