Locals and Harrow boys meet outside Lord’s at the 1937 Eton v Harrow cricket match. Photograph: Jimmy Sime/Getty Images
I remember vividly one harrowing night at the end of the school summer term 23 years ago. My nine-year-old daughter was inconsolable. All her friends were leaving her very good state school to be placed by their parents in various private schools in the Oxford area. She cried at her loss. My wife cried. Her younger sister cried, because her sister and mother were crying. The house was drenched in tears. We were living the continuing divisive disaster that is the British education system, the most socially engineered to advantage privilege in the world.
At the playground swings a few days earlier, I had overheard a group of mothers explaining to one another why they were going private. The state schools weren’t challenging enough for exceptional children like their own and the comprehensive was only just recovering from a reorganisation. They just weren’t prepared to take the risk. Best of all, their daughters could continue their friendships and mix with other children like them.
I remember thinking that the local comprehensive didn’t deserve such criticism; it got an exceptional proportion of its students to university. But it was part of the national conversation that there was little good in state education, dominated, as it was, by trade unions, trendy teaching methods, an ideology that all should have prizes and a general lack of commitment to excellence. Two years later, Chris Woodhead was appointed chief inspector of schools. The language and attitudes of those mothers at the swings suddenly became the lingua franca of the man charged with improving our schools.
His death last week was the trigger for another outpouring of brave-Chris-the-man-who-said-it-like-it-should-be-said pieces, admiring his honesty in declaring that there were 15,000 teachers who should be sacked, his excoriation of soft teaching methods and praise of his insistence that kids needed to acquire both skills and knowledge for knowledge’s sake. His target was the “blob”, the educational establishment identified by former education secretary Michael Gove, who defend “collectivist” public education and the mediocrity of the status quo. The consensus was that we need yet more of that energy now to mount the ongoing fight against the liberal/left blob still defending the indefensible.
Except there has been a quiet revolution taking place in our state schools, especially primary schools, which would be hard to imagine if the blob really was as effective in sustaining mediocrity as its critics say. The inconvenient truth is that the state school system is in the round good and improving. Sir Michael Wilshaw, who enraged so many educationalists by insisting when he took the job as chief inspector of schools that he would tolerate no excuses for failure, now declares that after 7,000 school inspections over the last year, 82% of primary schools and 71% of secondary schools are good or outstanding.
Governance is better; leadership is better; incentives are better; teachers are better motivated; trade unions support higher standards; academies are working; even initiatives such as Teach First are making a measurable difference. Indeed, a recent Sutton Trust report found that there are now 11,000 ex-Oxbridge teachers in the state sector, having doubled since 2003. Young men and women, as I know from my college in Oxford, want to make a difference to society rather than teach the already privileged. In some parts of the country, there has been something of a revolution. London now outperforms the rest of the country in GCSE and A-level results, a legacy of the last Labour government melding a Woodheadian commitment to academic rigour with more collectivist money and encouraging and rewarding better leadership. A generation of education reform has worked.
Yet I have no doubt that there are groups of middle-class mothers at playgrounds still shaking their heads at the well-publicised problems of the state system – despite its improvement. They need state schools to be crap to justify what would otherwise be an obvious attempt to advantage their own children over others and embrace the social apartheid of private education. The centre-right press ensures that every failing is magnified, every success under-reported. Wilshaw, complain centre-right commentators, has gone rogue. Doesn’t he know that state school teachers are unionised second-raters who don’t understand the importance of literacy and numeracy and who put up with disruptive classes? Ofsted should be abolished and the state school system dismantled into a system of free schools removed from all forms of suffocating public influence. Indeed, with the government pledged to create another 500 on top of 400 already created, the free school movement is well entrenched.
Which, as it grows, will become a disaster. The derided blob has always had one aim: to offer the best education for all. It probably did over-emphasise comprehensiveness over excellence in the 1970s and 80s, but those days are long gone. Today’s left/right blend of commitment to universality, less bad funding, rigour and leadership has worked. The danger is that the government is going to kill that alchemy and by rolling back universality, publicness and, crucially, the funding so crucial to recent success, further worsen the dreadful inequalities besetting education and wider society. But from their point of view, who cares? The casualties of this process don’t vote Tory anyway. Their constituency is the opters-out, private and public; 48% of Tory MPs are privately educated.
Opting out is the process that fuels inequality, still the hallmark of our education system. The Sutton Trust found that despite the recent improvement, children from the richer fifth of neighbourhoods are nine times more likely to go to a good university than the fifth from the poorest. Inequality defines life chances. Part of the explanation is private schools: part that socioeconomic background is crucial to family stability; and part that free schools and academies are disproportionately represented in richer areas. If we want a society in which the mass flourishes, then fragmenting our system into one built on autonomy, opting out and individualism – cementing inequalities – is precisely the wrong direction of travel.
Anthony Seldon, outgoing headmaster of Wellington College, complains of the narcissism of so many parents – videoing, rather than watching, school plays and rarely turning up for parents’ evenings. But that is where the values of libertarian conservatism leads. Looking back, my wife and I felt that parents like us should stand by the universal system; our daughter did well and many of her friends at the time, whose parents believed in their exceptionalism, have had unhappy lives. It would have been so much better if those children had been allowed to stick together in a system that spelled out their togetherness while teaching them with rigour. The English tragedy is that we will never get there.