An old debate with a new angle?

Jawarharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of an Independent India whilst at Harrow Public School in England. Might "elite" schools in England and India now take a lead in promoting inclusion?

Jawarharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of an Independent India whilst at Harrow Public School in England. Might “elite” schools in England and India now take a lead in promoting inclusion?

In the UK a recent article written by David and George Kynaston and titled Education’s Berlin Wall: the private schools conundrum published in The New Statesman magazine (3rd Feb 2014) old arguments about private schooling were re-rehearsed, whilst a few new(ish) ideas were put forward.

It has long been the case that in UK society many of the individuals who are in positions of influence and power have received their education at fee paying public or independent schools. Caution needs to be exercised when using this term – public schools, unlike in the USA far from being open to the majority of the public have traditionally been attended for the most part by children from the wealthier sections of society. Many of these schools are long established and have developed a reputation for the attainment of high academic standards and providing sound foundations for those wishing to enter “first class” universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Much has been made in the UK media of late of the fact that a significant number of the UK Government cabinet have come through the traditional public or independent school and Oxbridge route. These include the Prime Minister David Cameron (Eton College and Oxford), the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (St. Paul’s and Oxford) and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister (Westminster and Cambridge). Of course the influence of the public and independent schools is not limited to UK public life, with several other prominent world leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru (Harrow and Cambridge) first Prime Minister of an Independent India being just one example of a politician educated in this way.

The discussion in the media and to a large extent that in The New Statesman article has focused upon whether privilege or merit are the most significant influences upon gaining opportunities in adult life. As I said earlier, this is not a new debate, with prominent writers over many years including George Orwell and Mark Haddon expressing opinions for and against. The reason that I am interested in the article written by the Kynsatons is not simply about whether such schools have a valid place in twenty first century society, but rather the questions they raise about who attends them. As they put it:-

The question is not whether these schools should exist. We are where we are. The question is, are they educating the wrong children? And how do we end the divide to make them part of the common weal?”

They examine the common arguments in favour of private education, including the oft quoted, though somewhat fallacious, right of parents to choose where they educate their children. As they rightly state:-

“As a society, do we prioritise the right for individuals to educate their child as they wish (a phantom right for most people, given that fees are not an option), or the right of every child, including the poorest, to an even start?”

More interesting in their discussion is a suggestion that maybe these “elite schools” should take more responsibility for educating children who do not come from backgrounds where parents can afford to pay school fees and therefore do not have the choice that their wealthier counterparts have. In many ways this seems to sit more comfortably with the expectations of a more inclusive schooling system.

I would not necessarily have been very engaged with this somewhat tired debate that has raged for many years with no significant change to the status quo, had it not been for a response published this week in the edition of The New Statesman following that in which the original article was published. In this latest edition (February 7th – 13th) Laura McInerney, a Fulbright Scholar studying education policy writes a brief article under the heading “Follow the Indian Model”, in which she argues that in the UK we should learn from the 2009 Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) implemented by the Indian Government.

McInerney writes:-

“India, a nation with a caste system, now requires all of its private schools to ensure that 25 per cent of their intake comes from the poorest children in a given area. And don’t think that they can pick out their favourites. The places are won by open random lottery. Any child from a low-income family can enter; if he wins he must he admitted and taught.”

On reading this I confess that my eyebrows raised. Not simply because I had not expected The New Statesman, a magazine for which I have a certain respect and indeed affection to publish something quite this naïve, but also because of the suggestion that this is indeed a step forward.

The notion of a lottery for entry into education is one that appals me. It has long been argued that those who enter our elite independent and private schools have benefited in the “lottery of life”. In other words they have the good fortune to have been born into wealthy families. Laura McInerney implies that it is now acceptable for other pupils to be admitted to schools if they are fortunate enough to win a different kind of lottery, albeit one that is open to all comers.

Two questions remain in my mind. Is it now deemed acceptable that those with the losing lottery tickets are to be excluded from this elite education system? Surely a situation no better than that which already exists. And where is the evidence that schools in India, whilst abiding by the rules set out in the RTE and accepting their twenty five percent quota (where this is happening – and we know that this is not the case everywhere), are doing so willingly and in conditions where teachers are confident in addressing the needs of a more diverse population?

Is this truly a route to inclusion, or is it political expediency which may well be destined to fail? My concerns are these:-

Having accepted children into  these “elite” schools are they being set up to fail because teachers may be either reluctant or lack the necessary skills and understanding to meet their needs? Will there be a backlash, not least from parents concerned that the new intake of pupils may detrimentally affect school standards, which leads future politicians to renege upon these new regulations resulting in the very pupils intended to benefit from these arrangements being further isolated?

I do not doubt the sincerity of those who constructed the RTE. Neither do I question the commitment of many teachers who are more than willing to address the needs of a more diverse pupil population. I am less confident that the ground has been effectively prepared to enable both teachers and pupils to succeed in schools that have traditionally been exclusive, and I am concerned that the narrow focus upon academic standards that has driven so many of these schools for so long may inhibit many pupils from getting the education they deserve. Why not support those schools willing to develop inclusive approaches to teaching to enable them to open their doors to a more diverse population rather than enforce a policy upon reluctant and in some instances resistant institutions?

I have major concerns, but do so hope that I am about to be proven wrong!