Monday, April 13, 2009

Britain's ruling elite have put themselves in a class apart

They don't send their own kids to the sink schools they have created for "the masses"

It is easy to see why a cynical Tory leadership might have secretly wanted to destroy Britain's excellent grammar schools. Once selection by ability was abolished and replaced by comprehensives based on catchment areas, the best state schools would be in the wealthiest parts of town, and the Conservative-voting middle classes need no longer fear competition for scarce places from the bright children of poor homes. And so it has turned out, more or less.

But it is much harder to work out why Labour - supposedly the party of the working class --should have tried so hard and for so long to deprive the poor of good schools. If you can understand why this happened, then you can begin to grasp what has gone so wrong with British politics since the Second World War.

For the crisis in British state education is the direct result of the takeover of the Labour Party - once a working-class, Christian and socially conservative party - by dogmatic, well-off, middle-class cultural revolutionaries. They saw, and still see, education as the new nationalisation, their most effective weapon for levelling our society and forcing the rest of us - but not them - to be equal. It is their real Clause Four, the thing they will never give up. Those who have fooled themselves into thinking New Labour is really a conservative party should observe the dogged way that Labour never budges on this subject.

Modern British socialists - and modern British Tories - openly and actively support a school system that ensures the children of the rich and influential are privileged, while the offspring of the poor and weak are deprived. Why?

The evidence for all this is quite clear. The odd thing is that so few realise what it means. Since this is the system that we have, and since socialists do support it, and with some vigour, it is amazing that this question is not asked more often. All around us we see proof of it. We also have strong evidence that they know what they are doing. They pretend, when they must know they are fooling nobody, that they have not watered down the exam system to conceal the general drop in standards. And above all, they all try to avoid the schools they force on their voters. They usually do this through a variety of obvious fiddles. Sometimes they quite blatantly buy themselves out of the mess they have created. What they do not do is suffer the results of their own dogma.

This obvious, repeated hypocrisy is a reliable source of embarrassing scandals. But they are not like other scandals because, however many times they are exposed, the wrong is never put right. These events play for a little while in the Press, flare, flicker and die.

News is meant to shock, because it reveals a state of affairs that is plainly wrong. Normally, wrongdoing is in some way righted or at least expiated once it has been exposed. If it is the disclosure of a crime, the story usually ends with the trial and punishment of a culprit. If it is the revelation of an injustice, it generally ends in some sort of restitution. Fat cats are forced to ration their cream. Dirty hospitals are made to clean filthy lavatories and scrub bloodstained floors. Sordid broadcasters are forced off the air. The Monarchy, found to be privileged, is compelled to pay tax and to forgo much of its privilege and grandeur.

But if it is the exposure of socialist hypocrisy and privilege, there are no consequences. This hypocrisy is allowed.

Let us go through just some of the exposures of this kind. Back in the Sixties, prominent socialist politicians such as the Labour Lord and Minister C.P. Snow made no apologies about sending their children to Eton. Snow, himself a state-school product, said loftily that he 'didn't believe in cutting down the tall poppies'.

Nowadays it is slightly more complicated. Ruth Kelly, once in charge of forcing poor comprehensive schooling on others, while issuing massaged statistics to pretend it was good, was found to be sending one of her own children to a private school --on the grounds of 'special needs'. She tried tenaciously to prevent the news being published at all.

The Blairite Labour Cabinet Minister Paul Boateng got away with educating some of his children privately, perhaps because of his sparkling Left-wing credentials in other areas. Anthony Blair's friend Charles Falconer, forced to choose between educating his children privately and becoming a Labour MP, chose private education. But Mr Blair then made him a Lord, so allowing him to have a political career anyway.

Baroness Symons, another Labour Minister and former Leftwing trade unionist, quietly sent her son to an independent school. Diane Abbott, a militantly Leftist Labour backbencher, likewise sent her son to a private school. Astonishingly, she admitted that her action was 'indefensible' but went ahead with it anyway. Nothing has happened to her.

But for the more ambitious, other methods had to be used. It is simply impossible to find out how many Labour Ministers did as the Blairs did, and hired private tutors to coach their children through crucial exams. If nobody talks, the truth stays secret. But the general liberal elite method of obtaining a privileged and special education - while supporting egalitarian schooling for everyone else - appeared in many subtle and different ways.

Harriet Harman, a fierce upperclass radical married to Leftist union official Jack Dromey, managed to get one child (supposedly on the grounds of his religion) into the Oratory, a Roman Catholic secondary that is a grammar school in all but name. Soon afterwards, she got her second child into St Olave's, an openly selective grammar school (but not Catholic) far from her home. On this occasion, faith seemed to matter less.

Mr Blair himself, thanks to the Catholic faith of his wife, was able to escape bad local comprehensives and get his children into the Oratory, miles from his London home. This upset his Press secretary, Alastair Campbell. It also annoyed the pointedly unmarried mother of Mr Campbell's children, Fiona Millar. These fierce radicals were educated in selective grammar schools but are now passionate advocates of comprehensive schools. Miss Millar has publicly criticised Ms Harman over the St Olave's incident. Yet Mr Campbell and Miss Millar just so happen to live in the costly and very small catchment area of a group of London's most exceptional state schools, including two rare single-sex comprehensives. Others, too, just so happen to live in such desirable catchment areas.

To hope for a place at Camden School for Girls, you must dwell almost within sight of its gates. Local estate agents know to the yard where the catchment area begins and ends, and there is an agreeable gentrified square nearby, conveniently situated for middle-class buyers. It is not cheap to live there. Once again, it just so happens that, discontented with the state schooling available for their daughters elsewhere in London, the Blairite Pollster Philip Gould and his fashionable publisher wife Gail Rebuck moved to a property close to this excellent school - which is officially a nonselective comprehensive but has most of the features of an old-style girls' grammar school (with boys in the sixth form) and regularly gets plenty of pupils into Oxbridge. Nearby also live former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt and her husband, the one-time communist, now a judge, Bill Birtles. Their daughter also attended Camden Girls.

Another prominent Labour MP, Jon Cruddas, was recently found to have used his parliamentary allowance to buy a second home in Notting Hill, which just so happens to be in the catchment area of the superb - and exceptional - Cardinal Vaughan Roman Catholic state school. I think we can be sure there are many others who happen to have made similar housing choices, but we have not heard about them yet.

Since David Cameron's Conservatives finally stopped pretending to defend grammar schools and accepted the egalitarian agenda of New Labour, Tory politicians have been going through similar contortions. Mr Cameron's wife Samantha has been working busily on the parish magazine of a fashionable West London church. So has Sarah Vine, the journalist wife of Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove. It just so happens that attached to this church is one of London's very best Anglican primary schools, and that a little Cameron and a little Gove just so happen to have won rare places there: three children apply for every one.

This sort of secret privilege is standard procedure in countries where socialism is in power, and the most blatant example of George Orwell's deadly accurate satirical comment in Animal Farm that all are equal but some are more equal than others.

In communist Moscow, those with Red Power - much more useful there than money - used it to get their young into the famous School Number One, a great deal less equal than most Moscow comprehensives, but officially just the same. The Lenin High School in Havana is for the sons and daughters of Fidel Castro's revolutionary elite. In Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School is at least as exclusive as Eton, though not perhaps in exactly the same way. The children of the communist Chinese leadership often turn out to be studying at major American universities. They did not get there through the normal Chinese state school system. Here the same process happens. It is not secret, but when it is found out, it does not stop. It is too important for that.

You might think that at some point someone had shown that comprehensive schools were better than what went before them. The opposite is true. Experts knew they would make things worse. The largely unknown father of the idea of comprehensive schools in Britain - who also invented the term - was a war veteran and onetime teacher at Eton called Graham Savage, later knighted. His 1928 study of high schools in the United States was the first shot in the campaign to go comprehensive.

But Savage admitted from the start that while comprehensive schools were more 'democratic', they would also hold back the brightest pupils. Before he died in 1981, he began to express regrets about the destruction of grammar schools. Too late. By this time Labour had been captured by militant levellers, especially the zealot Anthony Crosland, who in 1965 sent out the circular that set wrecking balls swinging against the walls of hundreds of grammar schools.

Crosland, it turns out, did not really know what he was doing. In his 1956 book, The Future Of Socialism, it is clear that he had no idea what comprehensive schools would be like. He, like Graham Savage, admits that American-style high schools 'would lead to a really serious levelling-down of standards'. He explicitly ruled out the mixed-ability classes that would in fact become common. He supported selection within schools, instead of between them. But he did not reckon with the revolutionary zeal of the teachers themselves, many of them products of the Sixties campus revolution. Too bad for the rest of us.

But the liberal elite would always find a way out of the educational hell it had made for everyone else. It is a perfect illustration of what is wrong with modern British politics, that this shameful hypocrisy, combined with grave damage to our educational system, goes unchallenged by any major party.


That old School


In his not–quite–State of the Union address the other week, President Obama said the following:
“I think about Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina — a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She had been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this chamber. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, ‘We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.’ That’s what she said. ‘We are not quitters.’”

There was much applause, and this passage was cited approvingly even by some conservatives as an example of how President Obama was yoking his “ambitious vision” (i.e., record-breaking spending) to traditional appeals to American exceptionalism.

I think not. “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen . . .” The doctors are on track to becoming yet another group of state employees; the lawyers sue the doctors for medical malpractice and, when they’ve made enough dough, like John Edwards, they get elected to Congress. Is there no one in Miss Bethea’s school who’d like to be an entrepreneur, an inventor, a salesman, a generator of wealth? Someone’s got to make the dough Obama’s already spent.

As for the train “barreling by their classroom,” my colleague John Derbyshire checked. The closest the railroad track comes to the school is about 240 yards, or over an eighth of a mile. The president was wrong: Trains are not barreling by any classroom six times a day. And, even if they were, I’ll bet that’s fewer barrelings per diem than when the school was built in 1912, or the new wing added in 1957. Incidentally, you may have read multiple articles referring to the “113-year-old building.” Actually, that’s the building behind the main school — the original structure from 1896, where the school district has its offices. But if, like so many people, you assume an edifice dating from 1896 or 1912 must ipso facto be uninhabitable, bear in mind that the central portion of the main building was entirely rebuilt in 1983. That’s to say, this rotting, decrepit, mildewed Dotheboys Hall of a Gothic mausoleum dates all the way back to the Cyndi Lauper era.

Needless to say, the salaried stenographers up in the press gallery were happy to take the hopeychanger-in-chief at his word on the facts of the case. But even more striking is how indifferent they were to the bigger question: If a schoolhouse has peeling paint and leaking ceilings, what’s the best way to fix it? Applying for federal funds and processing the building maintenance through a huge continental bureaucracy? Or doing what my neighbors did when the (older than Dillon) grade-school bell tower was collapsing? The carpenters and painters donated their time, and the materials were paid for through community dances and bean suppers. If that sounds sick-makingly Norman Rockwell, well, take it from me, small-town life is hell and having to interact with folksy-type folks in a “tightly knit community” certainly takes its toll, and the commemorative photo montage of gnarled old Yankees in plaid looking colorful doesn’t capture many of the disputes over the project. But forget the cloying small-town sentimentality: It’s the quickest and cheapest way to resolve the problem.

It always is: A friend of mine is on the select board of a neighboring town. In recent years, the state highway department has condemned two bridges. With the first bridge, they were advised to apply for funds under the 80/20 state/town formula: The bridge has yet to be constructed and in that time the cost — including their 20 percent — has almost doubled. When the second bridge was condemned, the town rebuilt it themselves, for less than half of the first bridge’s original 80/20 formula cost, and in a twentieth of the time. It’s called the can-do spirit, not the can-apply-for-funding spirit.

Dillon, S.C., is a town of about 6,000 people. Is there really no way they can organize acceptable accommodation for a two-grade junior high school without petitioning the Sovereign in Barackingham Palace? To be fair to the good burghers of Dillon, they seem to be wearying of playing the peasant extras in Barack the O-mighty’s crowd scenes. They were originally proposing a municipal bond to fund building improvements, and appear to have realized that being stuck in Stimulus Hell is a high price to pay for young Ty’Sheoma’s photo op with Michelle. But, even if the federal behemoth were capable of timely classroom repainting from D.C. to Hawaii, consider the scale of government and the size of bureaucracy that would be required. Once such an apparatus is in place it won’t content itself with paint jobs.

Tocqueville would weep. “It is in the township that the strength of free peoples resides,” he wrote. “Municipal institutions are for liberty what primary schools are for science; they place it within reach of the people. . . . Without municipal institutions, a nation is able to give itself a free government, but it lacks the spirit of liberty.”

The issue is not the decrepitude of the building but the decrepitude of liberty. Maybe the president can spend enough of our money to halt the degradation of infrastructure. The degradation of citizenship will prove harder to reverse.


Cultural sensitivity directives 'bamboozle' Australian teachers of black kids

An education expert says teachers are being "bamboozled" by mysticism surrounding Aboriginal children and letting educational standards slip. Dr Chris Sarra, director of the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute in Queensland, was in Darwin this week addressing 200 principals and senior education department figures.

He says he told the conference teachers should demand high standards of Aboriginal children, instead of making allowances for cultural differences. "There is the potential and I believe this absolutely, that the Territory education system can move from one that is perhaps been guilty of creating an underclass to becoming a world class education system," he said.

Dr Sarra says he read a paper last year directing educators "not to look Aboriginal children in the eyes" because it might somehow damage their psyche. He says there is an impression that being culturally sensitive means accepting second rate outcomes from Aboriginal students, but that this approach does the students no favours. "It presented Aboriginal children as being so mystical and so culturally different and so exotic, to the extent that lots of teachers were overwhelmed by that sort of information and forgot these are actually just kids in schools who deserve an education as much as anybody," he said.

"We can't get to a point where we just cannot see the kids for the black faces. "We've got to take Aboriginal children as high-potential learners, high-calibre learners with tremendous potential."

Dr Sarra says he has completed a structural review of the Northern Territory Education Department which is currently with the Chief Minister. He was commissioned to conduct the review after the former head of the department, Margaret Banks, was sacked by the then education minister Marion Scrymgour in October last year.

Dr Sarra says it would be inappropriate for him to comment on whether his review recommends redundancies. "You'll have to wait for the Chief Minister to have a look at what's contained in the report," he said. "I don't believe it's fair that that education department employees up there should be hearing about any outcomes from me through this forum."


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