Sunday, May 13, 2012

On public schools

I'm thinking I really should stop commenting on the English school system. It has a number of features that are strange and unfamiliar. One of these is the use of the term 'public school' to describe private institutions that by their very nature exclude the vast majority of the public. (It's like the Anglo-American use of conservative and liberal; depending on the context, the words seem capable of bearing exactly the same meaning.) Michael Gove with his repeated references to English private schools demonstrates that whatever else he might be, he is irreducibly Scottish.

Beyond the semantics, what was interesting about his remarks was the response they evoked. He thinks the dominance of the English private school system in public life in unjustified - and his preferred solution, as far as one can tell, is for the public sector to emulate the private - hence his enthusiasm for blazers, streaming, kids sitting in rows, rote learning, Latin, the King James Bible - the 1950s in other words.

Among his targets is the profession of journalism, which as he rightly points out is dominated by public school girls and boys - one or two of whom have responded to his comments. While they have different points to make both Laurie Penny and George Monbiot both seem to agree that the solution to this manifestation of entrenched advantage and privilege is the abolition of the private sector in education.

The question is, who's right? I'd suggest none of the above. One finds rather more to agree with in what Laurie Penny says than Michael Gove when she talks, for example, about the sense of entitlement that is part of the curriculum for the privately-educated. She could have added that there's the more tangible business of gaining access to a social network of people who have money and power. They have money because they have power.

Less so when she goes on about class sizes and the ability of the private sector to attract the 'best teachers'. Class size is largely irrelevant in my view, for reasons I won't bore you with. The question of the 'best teachers' is worth exploring though. Laurie Penny thinks the private sector attracts the best because they can pay for them. I'd have to disagree for a number of reasons. Firstly, the private sector doesn't pay that much more - and even if we accept that the 'good teacher' is motivated by money - which we shouldn't - in the long run there's more opportunity for this in the public sector because there are more opportunities for promotion. Teachers are like anyone else; we adapt to circumstances. I have a special set of skills I have developed on the Eastern Front in Glasgow. It's difficult to say how useful these would be in a private school but I'm thinking; not very. Same goes for my colleague in the private school. But if we swapped jobs, I'm sure we'd get the hang of it after a year or two.

Laurie Penny accuses Gove of thinking people are primarily motivated by money, yet she appears to believe the same when it comes to teachers - and this is not their only point of contact: what Gove, Monbiot and Penny all seem to share is the notion that education is the primary engine of social mobility. This is surely wrong and is a species of what Sarah Ditum has described as the 'Education fetish' - politicians and pundits wanting education to obviate through 'opportunity' something that only greater economic equality can actually achieve.

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