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Sean Prentice - 22 Jul 2019


I view private schools, especially those in the top tier, to be nothing more than special needs education for mediocre posh kids to allow them to keep an advantage over bright kids form middle-class and working-class families

The British have been called ‘a nation of shopkeepers', but I think that we’re more a nation that queues in shops…supermarkets, post offices, cafes…and outside nightclubs, music venues, festival port-a-loos et cetera, et cetera. In Britain we’re good at queuing. In fact we pride ourselves on orderly queuing. We take our place at the back of the line and wait our turn. We queue on a daily basis. Queuing in line is quintessentially British. Waiting in line for your turn is practically a synonym for British ‘fair play’ and woe-betide anyone who pushes in!
I was in a jumble sale queue recently. I’d been queuing there for a long time…over an hour such is my dedication to queuing. Eventually, and I put it down to boredom, I struck up a conversation with an older lady standing behind me. In some categories of queue the normal ‘mind your own business' etiquette is joyously suspended. The lady turned out to be a Conservative councillor from an adjoining county who, long story short, believed that a lack of work ethic was one of the great plagues befalling modern Britain. I contended that lack of opportunity could easily be posited for perceived laziness, and I reminded her, guessing correctly that she, a working-class lass, had left school in 1964, that the world of work and access to meaningful work, and the ability to walk in and out of jobs, has changed greatly in the last half century. She countered this with the usual arguments about Britain being a meritocracy. I found her arguments, and personal anecdotes of millionaires coming from nothing, to be problematic. For her imagined meritocracy to be real, even if it were desirable, there would need to be a level playing field, as in somewhat dystopian Brazilian web television series 3% in which each person would succeed or fail on their merit alone. Nobody would receive help or financial assistance from their parents, nepotism would be illegal. Equally no one would inherit one iota of family wealth or property. Everyone would receive the same education. Everyone would begin adult life from the same zero point.  In many senses, but not all, it would be a truly egalitarian society. This is not what we have.
I live, and the aforementioned jumble sale also was, in a village that boasts not one but two elite fee paying prep schools. At one the fees are high and at the other they are very high. Those who attend one or other of these schools can expect to have very different expectations of the future than those who go to the state school in the village. The Conservative councillor lady had not noticed what kind of village she was in, nor what kind of society Britain entertains. Nor had she noticed how opportunity is unequally distributed, perhaps blinded by her own good luck of entering the world of work at a time of prosperity and unparalleled social mobility. Although I see the notion of meritocracy a dystopian joke no matter how it is told, I do believe in equality …or at least a more equal society. Presently, as the Conservative leadership contest starkly illustrates, Britain is far from equal and far from a level playing field. If anything, Britain is as it always was, anti-equality and pro-privilege.  I find myself very much, as they say, ‘on trend' at the moment, as my own views about what steps need to be taken to achieve a more egalitarian society correspond with the Ed Miliband backed @AbolishEton campaign which is urging for a Labour manifesto pledge to integrate all private schools into the state sector.  This might be contentious but I view private schools, especially those in the top tier, to be nothing more than special needs education for mediocre posh kids to allow them to keep an advantage over bright kids form middle-class and working-class families. I think it is okay for me to say that. I’m not being racist against posh people or anything like that. Besides, forty years ago, as a disabled kid, I attended a special school before widespread integration. One at which disabled kids were segregated from able-bodied kids in a very literal sense, in the form of a wall (try not to think of Trump now), the only purpose of which was to shield us from the gaze of the junior school next door. I’m glad to say it doesn’t exist any longer.  That kind of educational apartheid didn’t make for more equal society either. When I say ‘more equal’ it is because equality can only ever be approached.  It can never be arrived at. Much must be factored in.
I wonder, tender reader, how do you account for your own fulfilment, or success if you prefer, or lack of? How much was down to the support and encouragement of family? How much was down to genetic inheritance? How much was down to good luck? How much is good luck a factor in our lives? Unfortunately it isn’t possible to legislate for good luck or to hand luck out evenly and equally. Yet, things that can be done, so one person doesn’t have an unfair advantage over another, should be done. This is the way I would have this tiered education system levelled. I’m a bit of a leveller. I don’t like anyone pushing in.




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