Private schooling and social division

Once again today (Sunday 15th July) Will Hutton’s incisive analysis of our contemporary malaise leaves others standing.   In today’s article, he exemplifies the problems of British society through the example of private schooling.  Of course, there are many other private choices, not least consumer choices (cheap instead of fair), work choices (the minimum, not the best), relationship choices (me not us) , which contribute to the break down of social cohesion and trust.   However private schooling is a particularly strong one, (and particularly relevant at the level of UK government).  While it is easy to see the social damage at a general level, it is much more difficult to see from the position of an individual spending their money to ‘get the best’ for their child.  Choosing state education means hard civic work, building understandings, relationships, forging common goals, sometimes at the expense of your own individual interest.  Moreover, as its proponents argue, the independence of private schooling, albeit the independence of a few, has the potential to offer an important defence against totaletarian models of government.  Hutton concludes by defining the limits of commentary (and his contribution) in his recognition that politics must play the leading role:   … The open question is whether Labour can articulate what needs to be done – and build the broad based coalition to do it. It is the conundrum on which the future of British politics – and the future of our children – hangs.

It’s an important question but is this too much to ask for a political party now?  The social supports of the labour movement, through which these common understandings were developed, have been declining or have gone altogether: from the Trade Unions, to the workplaces, to the communities based around industrial plant of one kind or another.  Moreover they were often the partial understandings of the dispossessed.  Their main project – state controlled redistribution – had many failings, which contributed to electoral failure in the late 1970s.  The (for shorthand) ‘Thatcherite’ choices of individualist consumerism have cemented changes in our social ecology which were already underway.   We have increasingly fragmented, issue-based, interest-based, individual social constructions of the world.   Lacking a common foundation in shared social understandings, it is increasingly difficult to articulate the broad compromises necessary to gain electoral success in a UK election, something which Tony Blair managed to do where his predecessors could not.   Those on the left have become increasingly better at standing on the sidelines on their principles or on a cynical critique, rather than doing the hard work of political action.  Yet we do need social ideas that make sense of the world people experience, social values that people can rally round, and we need articulate politicians that people feel able to trust.  In that respect too, the Labour Party, damaged by the mistakes of years in office, still has to do some time, to bathe itself in the warm healing waters of humility, before it can be recognised as a credible voice of the future.

It is in that UK political vacuum, that in Scotland the ‘national identity’ politics of the SNP has come to seem, for many, the best way forward.  ‘Nationality’ politics, contrasting a social democratic Scotland with the more individualist privatised UK, offers for many Scots a strong commonly understood starting point, from which to build the broader social understandings that must underpin the work of political party activists.  It offers a broadly understood political vision that has given the undoubtedly able SNP political machine ‘traction’ and an opportunity to construct a different, ‘Scottish’, political narrative.

We also, in Scotland, have a more ‘public’ education system, with all state secondary schools being ‘comprehensive’ in character and ethos.  However some are less comprehensive than others – through religious ethos (our many Catholic comprehensives), locality, the local effects of parental choice or the local social traditions of private schooling.   This ‘common education system’, like our common nationality, masks the extent of social difference in Scotland.  Our uneasy and unarticulated compromises on comprehensive education sit in a poorly defined civic debate about the value of education and what we want our education system to do.  Over the past twenty years, value has been publicly defined in political debate, and professionally defined through our school Inspectorate, as being almost synonymous with examination results.    The civic value contributed by our (partly) comprehensive system is much less acknowledged or articulated.  Individualist constructions of meaning see educational value in terms of the examination achievement of children individually and of schools in aggregate.  Yet schools can and do contribute so much more.

In our public schools, we seek, and sometimes (especially in primary schools) find, a temporary social consensus through negotiation and dialogue, based around a core common desire to see our young people develop.  Part of the job of the school is that negotiation:  the time, the compromises, the relationship building, the listening, the sharing.  All of these are part of the learning project, civic learning, co-operative learning.  All children – the quick and the slow, the hard and the weak, the criminal and the naive, differently abled and with different values and aspirations, have their place in the community of the school.   Our public (i.e. state) schools are one of the few places where the diverse individuals our our social world physically meet each other and are required to share a common space and develop some common understandings of how to live together.  Our comprehensive schools add social value and create community, through this work.  However some of that influence is temporary, as young people experience the social reality of work and the unequal and unfair social differences in access, choices and rewards which exist beyond the sheltered environment of the school.

In our private schools, parents can buy access for their children to a more stable, secure worldview, less socially mediated by contemporary compromise, insulated to an extent from this civic mission.   Even those which, as Anthony Seldon argued inThe Observerrecently, reach out from their stronghold of excellence  to offer support to those in greater need (I paraphrase), take their strength from being apart, building a different ethos, standing for something distinctive.   And that gives them a very real strength.  Not weighted down by the social burdens and obligations of school as a ‘public service’, empowered by the positive choice made by parents, many of these schools are highly focused and coherent communities, drawing strength from the large reserves of social capital they can access.  They offer diversity and quality.  The difficulty is that, allowing for varying levels of token access for gifted scholarship pupils, they offer this to those who can afford to pay for it.   They are, and often sell themselves as, ‘exclusive’, not ‘inclusive’.  They stand for a different model of society.

Now if the Labour Party was to develop a model of school education that was diverse, allowed for choice and celebrated difference, but in which all citizens were expected to participate, irrespective of class, income, residence or religious values, that would offer a vision of the future worth fighting for politically.   That would be real recognition of the civic value of education.    From such an education system, a socially more just and an economically more sustainable Britain might emerge.

Dream on.

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