In recent weeks, it seems I can’t get away from my old school, Ardingly. Reading an article in the Sunday Times, I find a description of Ardingly as a private school which is “less well-known but equally grim”. Half-way through a book on the Victorians, I find a passage on the founder Nathaniel Woodard. The author describes Ardingly as a “third-class Woodard school”, to which parents send their boys so that “these boys might better themselves in later life that they could aspire to send their own sons to grander Woodard establishments, such as Lancing”. Bloody Lancing. That’s not all – Ardingly was to be aimed at parents who were “not, strictly, respectable”: for instance, the keepers of “second-rate retail shops, publicans, gin-palace keepers”… (Woodard’s own words)
I can’t say I saw all this in those Ardingly brochures.
But this got me thinking. How similar were the ambitions of the founders of the greatest private schools in the land, Eton, Westminster, St Paul’s, et al. to the ambitions of the founders of free schools now? There was certainly no profit motive at the root of their ambitions. They were guided by an instinct, in some cases snobbish, in some cases pompous, but always altruistic. The instinct was to improve the child. The first step was to make them virtuous – polite, public-spirited, honourable, self-confident – altogether more “Christian” gentlemen, in their eyes. In so doing, the boy could improve their income and social status.
The Tories’ free schools scheme taps into a similar instinct. The scheme is simple in its design: it makes it easier for individuals and organisations to set up their own school. They may be parents unhappy with state schools in the area, teachers, charities, religious or voluntary groups. The same altruistic motivation is at heart.
There are some differences in ambition. For one, snobbery plays no role in their ambitions. Unlike Victorian private schools, free schools are open to anyone, not just children of the rich. Girls may be admitted of course. But apart from these things, the instinct is essentially the same. No profit motive is at play, since profit-making enterprises are banned. A glance down the list of the 24 new free schools reveals an instinct to make the child more virtuous. Some schools aim to make the child more “Christian” as before; many more offer to make the child more “Sikh”, more “Jewish”, more “Hindu”. Others, supported by charities, offer to turn inner-city youths into honourable adults. All aim to make children excel.
The creation of schools with noble ambitions seems to me a good thing. Yet there is an increasing host of individuals, mostly on the Left, who are convinced that free schools are a Very Bad Thing. I can understand the objection against religious schools. I can understand the objection against stripping cash from local schools to finance free schools. (It would be nice if no school budget were being cut.) But these are different objections from the challenge that free schools in themselves are bad.
Labour finds itself in this curious position. The party has no truck against religious schools. The party opposes slashed school budgets. But the party also opposes the concept of free schools. This is not because they believe free schools will be bad schools; bizarrely it is the reverse. They oppose free schools because they fear free schools will be good. This is no exaggeration. Ed Balls has struck out against a “two-tier education system” in which some schools are allowed to do better than others. In this “social apartheid”, please note, the free schools are the good schools.
In the midst of this confused dottiness, there is a silence over one particular issue. Labour rails against the privatisation of the NHS – in spite of the fact that it is a continuation of the health reforms conducted under Thatcher, Major and Blair. Labour rails against the privatisation of universities – despite that it was the party to usher in tuition fees in the first place. Labour even rails against free schools as the “privatisation of education”. This misses out one key thing: education is already private. Where are the angry mobs shouting about that? Where are the effigies of Nathaniel Woodard?
Don’t mistake me – I don’t want flaming torches to descend upon Ardingly. My point is merely this: we already have a two-tier system. It works as follows: the rich pay for their kids to go to the best schools; the rest either get bursaries, or are stuck with the state system. The private schools have more money, so can afford smaller classes, larger grounds, better teachers. The best teachers would prefer to work in the private schools, because these schools can kick the bad kids out, and y’know, they don’t have to deal with all the misery and dysfunction that comes with poor kids. Thus social inequality is entrenched!
I don’t suggest this is a fair system. But it’s the system we have, and no-one much likes to talk about it. To some extent, social inequality will never diminish until every private school shuts. No-one is prepared to do that. The only way we can change things is to improve state education. If we leave things as they are, poor kids will always be poor, rich kids will always be rich. Having people who propose to create good schools for us – this is an opportunity that cannot be missed.