Saturday, May 15, 2010

Despite 13 years of Labour party hot air and addled policies, Britain's State schools provide fewer opportunities for upward social mobility than ever -- and it shows

The article below uses "public-school" in the old British sense (non-government). "Comprehensives" are government-funded schools -- which are often chaotic and are usually geared to the lowest common denominator

So, if you ever doubted that you get what you pay for, take a look at the footage of David Cameron and Nick Clegg during their Downing Street rose garden love-in. Two slim, handsome, affable and articulate men in their mid-40s, quick on their feet and comfortable in the spotlight: has there ever been a better advert for a public-school education?

Indeed, watching our new Prime Minister and his Deputy chuckling in the sunshine on Wednesday, it was easy to see them in terms of public-school stereotypes.

On the right, Mr Cameron, the Old Etonian: dapper, upright, his iron ambition concealed by velvet manners. And on the left, Mr Clegg, the Westminster boy: relaxed, good-humoured, the very picture of effortless superiority.

But look again at the footage of our new masters in the rose garden and you will see not just the virtues of two first-class schools, but a damning indictment of the collapse of opportunity in modern Britain.

For as our new Government gets down to business, there is an inevitable contrast between the new Cabinet's rhetoric - austerity and hard work, pain and sacrifice - and their own life stories.

Of those men and women around the Cabinet table, a staggering 67 per cent went to top private schools, compared with just 7 per cent of the total population.

One response, trotted out by both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg during the campaign, is that none of this really matters. 'What people are interested in,' Mr Cameron maintained, 'is not where you come from but where you're going, what you've got to offer the country.'

That may be true, but while Mr Cameron's predecessors, such as Michael Howard, William Hague, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, could point to their relatively modest backgrounds as evidence of their own hard work, there is more than a little truth in the assertion that our new Prime Minister and his Deputy have had everything handed to them on a silver platter.
Margaret Thatcher

And there is a deeper story here. After all, the Prime Minister is hardly the only former public schoolboy in the new Cabinet: as he looks around the table, he sees George Osborne (St Paul's), Chris Huhne (Westminster), Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse) and Andrew Lansley (Brentwood), as well as his Old Etonian chum Oliver Letwin.

Indeed, if it were not for the defiant presence of a few grammar and comprehensive schoolboys such as Kenneth Clarke (Nottingham High School, which years later became a public school), Vince Cable (Nunthorpe Grammar) and William Hague (Wath-upon-Dearne Comprehensive), the weekly Cabinet meeting would look disturbingly like a lunch party at the East India Club, the gentleman's club in St James's open only to former public schoolboys.

And despite its occasional flirtation with the rhetoric of class warfare, Labour is not much better. For all his faults, Gordon Brown could hardly claim a privileged background: the son of a Church of Scotland minister, he went to his local state school, Kirkcaldy High.

But Tony Blair had the best education money can buy at Scotland's most prestigious public school, Fettes. And the party's current acting leader, Harriet Harman, went to St Paul's Girls, the expensive sister school to the new Chancellor's alma mater.

Even state-educated Labour MPs belong to a very particular political class. Both David and Ed Miliband, for instance, went to North London's Haverstock Comprehensive - which, because of its catchment area, is very successful - and then Oxford University. Ed Balls went to public school and Oxford, too, as did his wife, Yvette Cooper.

Indeed, it is hard to resist the suspicion that British politics has become an exclusive club, dominated by public schoolboys, and that an old school tie and Oxbridge connections are the passport to that club.

It hardly needs saying that there is nothing wrong with a privileged education: I should know, having benefited from one myself. And at one level, it is hardly surprising that so many public-school products end up running the country. After all, parents expect a lot for £150,000 - the total cost of putting a child through a top boarding school today.

And yet, even a former public schoolboy can see that there is something wrong with a system in which a privileged political class clogs up the corridors of power, especially since research conclusively shows that social mobility has stalled since the Sixties, preventing bright children from getting the opportunities enjoyed by their parents.

In many ways, the collapse in opportunity was one of New Labour's greatest failures.

According to a study by the Sutton Trust, those born in 1970 are much less likely to earn more than their parents than those born in 1958. And while almost half of children from the richest 20 per cent of homes get a university degree, only one in ten from the poorest 20 per cent does so. 'Shamefully,' the report concluded, 'Britain remains stuck at the bottom of the international league tables when it comes to social mobility.'

Other studies have made similar-findings. Only last year, a Commons all-party panel reported that 75 per cent of judges, 70 per cent of finance directors and 45 per cent of top civil servants went to private schools. Britain was still run, the panel concluded, by a 'closed shop'.

It bears repeating that there is nothing wrong with a private education in itself: at one level, these figures show that the public schools and Oxbridge still do a terrific job.

But given that both Labour and the Tories have boasted for years about being parties of opportunity, you wonder what happened to all those bright children from modest backgrounds.

On top of that, you wonder how David Cameron and Nick Clegg can possibly understand the anxieties of their fellow countrymen as the austerity years approach, given that their own lives have been so gilded.

Can politicians who spent their teenage years joining exclusive dining clubs, working as ski instructors and appearing in Noel Coward comedies really appreciate the struggles of ordinary British youngsters when the cuts begin to bite?

For Mr Cameron, the inevitable contrast is with his Tory predecessors. John Major, for example, was born to a garden-gnome manufacturer in Brixton, left school with three O-levels, spent a short period on the dole, and worked his way up the ranks from bank clerk to Prime Minister.

Whatever faults Sir John may have had, it could hardly be said that he did not understand the common man.

Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, was born and bred a long way from the playing fields of Eton. The daughter of a Methodist grocer in Grantham, Lincolnshire, she won a scholarship to Kesteven and Grantham Girls, a local grammar school, where she first established a reputation for ferocious hard work.

Shamefully, critics often held her background against her: in the Eighties, the philosopher Mary Warnock mocked Mrs Thatcher's 'elocution voice' and 'neat, well-groomed clothes and hair, packaged together in a way that's not exactly vulgar, just low'.

But unlike the boarding school educated Baroness Warnock, Mrs Thatcher had worked for everything she achieved, her sheer grit and effort propelling her from Grantham to Downing Street. And her belief in the virtues of sheer effort, born of her Methodist faith and grammar-school education, lay at the heart of her political philosophy.

'I came to office with one deliberate intention,' she once said: 'To change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation.'

Yet Mrs Thatcher was only one member of a generation of talented politicians from humble backgrounds at both ends of the ideological spectrum - people such as Edward Heath (Chatham House Grammar School), Harold Wilson (Wirral Grammar), Denis Healey ( Bradford Grammar), Roy Jenkins (Abersychan County School) and Enoch Powell (King Edward's, Birmingham).

Look again at the names of those schools and you will see that these men had one thing in common: they had all attended ordinary state grammar schools.

And leafing through their life stories, what is obvious is that those schools gave them something else in common: an almost fanatical belief in the importance of hard work.

When Harold Wilson went as a scholarship boy to Oxford, the idea of joining a swanky dining club would have been utter anathema. He spent his days at his desk, working an average of 10 hours a day. He had 'always been driven by a feeling that there is something to be done and I really ought to be doing it', he said later.

And when Enoch Powell won a scholarship to Cambridge, the thought of spending his summers backpacking around Europe - the typical recreation of public schoolboys like Messrs Cameron and Clegg - would have struck him as deeply shameful.

The importance of hard graft had been drummed into him so completely that when another Birmingham boy invited him to come and have tea on his first day, he replied: 'Thank you very much, but I came here to work.'

Of course, there are modern equivalents, from stateeducated, self-made Cabinet ministers such as Ken Clarke, Vince Cable and William Hague, to backbenchers like David Davis, brought up on a council estate by a single mother and educated at Tooting Bec Grammar School.

Yet the fate of David Davis's old school tells a wider and more depressing story. Bec School, as it was known, was founded in 1926. But in 1970 it was merged with another local school to form a big comprehensive, and the original buildings were demolished 15 years ago.

As with so many grammar schools, its proud history of educating bright children from working-class backgrounds had not saved it from the ideological fervour of self-styled egalitarians such as Anthony Crosland, Labour's Education Secretary during the mid-Sixties.

For while Crosland himself - a classic champagne socialist - had been educated at the prestigious, fee-paying Highgate School, he could not disguise his contempt for the grammar schools that had done so much for his Cabinet colleagues.

'If it's the last thing I do,' he told his wife, 'I'm going to destroy every f****** grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.' Only Scotland was safe: their schools, it turned out, did not come under his jurisdiction.

And Crosland was as good as his word. At their peak in the early Sixties, there were more than 1,200 grammar schools in England. Today, there are just 164, clustered in a few counties such as Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Kent.

To her eternal regret, Mrs Thatcher failed to roll back the destruction of the grammar schools during her brief spell as Education Secretary in the early Seventies. But as she later pointed out, institutions like her beloved Kesteven and Grantham Girls had been a genuine force for social mobility.

'People from my sort of background,' she famously told the Tory Party conference in 1977, 'needed grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.' Yet the brutal reality is that more than three decades on, the chances of another Margaret Thatcher, or even another Ted Heath or Harold Wilson, rising through the ranks are smaller than ever.

Outside a few enclaves, the grammar schools are gone; the ladder has been kicked away. The result is that more than ever, power belongs to an old boy network of public schoolboys and Oxford graduates.

And even as David Cameron and Nick Clegg exchange smiles like love-struck teenagers, the dream of a genuinely fluid, open society, with opportunities for all regardless of background, seems more remote than ever.


Arizona now targets biased ethnic studies

Law infuriates liberals again

Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, already under fire for approving the nation's toughest illegal immigration law, has again run afoul of liberal activists, signing a bill Wednesday that targets ethnic studies programs in schools that critics say unfairly demean white Americans.

The law, which takes effect Dec. 31, would prohibit courses that promote resentment toward one race; that are designed for students of one race; that promote ethnic solidarity "instead of treating students as individuals;" and that encourage "the overthrow of the United States government."

The proposal was the brainchild of Tom Horne, Arizona state superintendent of public instruction, who has long battled with the Tucson Unified School District over its Mexican-American studies program, contending that it promotes "ethnic chauvinism" through the use of textbooks such as "Oppressed America" and at least one guest speaker who said, "Republicans hate Latinos."

Those who contend the law promotes racism are missing the point, Mr. Horne said. "It's the opposite of racism," said the Republican, who is running for state attorney general. "We're trying to get schools to treat students as individuals and not on the basis of race."

Still, reaction to the law has been swift. No less than a United Nations human rights panel issued a statement the day before the law was signed, warning that it violated Arizona's obligation to "promote a social and cultural environment conducive to respect for ethnic and cultural diversity."

Supporters of the ethnic studies programs have argued that enrolled students perform better than their peers who don't participate in the program. Two Oregon State University researchers released a statement Tuesday saying that the law "could negatively affect students' academic achievement and reverse academic gains made over the last several years."

Sean Arce, director of the Mexican-American studies department in the Tucson school district, said the district's ethnic studies program conforms to the law's guidelines. "In no way do we teach the resentment of any particular group of people," Mr. Arce told the Arizona Republic newspaper....

As for the ethnic studies law, Mr. Horne said, it does nothing to prevent schools from teaching about students' cultures. "We should learn about different heritages and languages, and I'm all for that," he said. "I'm just opposed to dividing students up and only teaching them about their own."

Among the Arizona schools that could be affected by the law are three charter schools run by Chicanos Por La Causa, a nonprofit group that bills itself as the state's largest community development corporation.

But spokeswoman Amanda Roberson said she doubted the schools would be in danger of losing funding. Schools that violate the law would lose a share of state education funds. "We don't think right now it's going to apply to us," said Ms. Roberson. "The language is very extreme - I mean, it talks about overthrowing the government - and we don't think it applies to us."

Mr. Horne has argued that the curriculum prods Hispanic students into believing they are oppressed by whites. He pointed to a 2006 talk by Hispanic activist Dolores Huerta, who told students, "Republicans hate Latinos."

He also cited the use of textbooks such as "Oppressed America," which quotes a Hispanic activist saying that Chicanos should "kill the gringo." Another textbook, he says, "The Mexican American Heritage," promotes the idea of Aztlan, the five Southwestern states that activists say should be returned to Mexican control.


Australia: New national curriculum less rigorous than existing State curriculum

The new national curriculum threatens to water down the content of some Higher School Certificate courses for NSW senior secondary school students, critics say. And they say the consultation period for the draft curriculum, which ends on July 30, is being rushed in an election year.

The highest-level courses in maths and English do not appear to extend students as much as existing courses, under the proposals for years 11 and 12.

NSW students will have to learn more about statistics in maths and the modern history of Asian countries under the draft curriculum for year 11 and 12 students. A strong focus on World War I in year 12 will be replaced with an emphasis on World War II, the Cold War and the modern history of Australia's Asia-Pacific neighbours.

Teacher associations fear many of the changes threaten the rigour of the HSC syllabus. The national curriculum specialist maths course covers only some of the more challenging areas of the extension two HSC course.

For most students studying English the focus will shift from literature to language and literacy. But a specialist literature course will be available for brighter students.

A spokeswoman for the NSW English Teachers Association, Eva Gold, said: "The problem for NSW is that all our top students, even those with an inclination towards maths and the sciences, engage in a rigorous study of literature and language. In the national curriculum, top students may not have the exposure to literature that we are used to."

The president of the Mathematical Association of NSW, Mary Coupland, said: "A lot of work needs to be done to make it anywhere near as good as what we have in NSW. I get a sense it is all being rushed."

Rob Randall, general manager curriculum for the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, said the national curriculum courses would replace equivalent courses in each state and territory.

States and territories could continue to offer extension courses, he said.

Launching the draft curriculum at North Ryde Public School, the federal Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, said it was "important to our sense of being one nation". "It's important to those school kids who move from one state to another during school, and around 80,000 schoolchildren [do so] each year."

The state Minister for Education, Verity Firth, said that while she recognised that having eight curriculums was unsustainable, a national curriculum posed a problem. She believed the national curriculum would not water down the high standards of NSW but raise them everywhere.


Australia: A very expensive way of providing new school buildings -- courtesy of both Federal and State governments

More abuse of "stimulus" money. Neither Leftist government involved seems even to have heard of cost control or contract supervision. Waste is normal to Leftist governments. They just don't care about it. It's not their personal money that they are wasting

PARENTS at a NSW school are furious that the cost of a new library funded under the Rudd government's Building the Education Revolution program has blown out to be almost three times the manufacturer's price.

Last year, Cattai Public School, in the Hawkesbury region north of Sydney, was told it would be given a $678,000 library and a $202,000 shade structure under the federal government's $16.2 billion schools stimulus program.

At the time, Parents & Citizens Association president Helena Bark raised serious concerns over those costings, as the pre-fabricated "cookie-cutter" designed library cost just $341,000 from the manufacturer.

Further, the school had 18 months earlier built a covered outdoor learning area, or COLA, twice as big as the proposed new structure for $70,000, just one third of the proposed price.

Now, not only have the school's concerns gone unanswered, but they have been told the cost of the library has blown out to $920,000 - more than the school's entire original budget - and plans for a new shade structure have been scrapped.

"We have been told we cannot have the COLA anymore because the library has gone over-budget," Ms Bark told The Weekend Australian yesterday. "We had asked for amendments to the building design because it was too small but we were told we couldn't change anything because it was all pre-designed and pre-determined by the NSW government. "But now we're told one thing has changed, and that's the price."

Ms Bark said the school's repeated requests for information regarding how the price of the prefabricated building had soared by more than one-third in the past year had been unanswered by the NSW government and the managing contractor handling the scheme, Brookfield Multiplex.

"Our unanswered question remains: how can pre-fabricated, standard government-designed buildings simply soar in price for no apparent reason?" she said.

The issue of vastly inflated prices of pre-fabricated "cookie-cutter" designed buildings delivered under the scheme is becoming a key focus of wastage under the BER.

Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard has attempted to explain away scores of examples of public schools receiving poor value for money under the BER compared with private schools and industry costing standards by claiming such examples do not compare "apples with apples".

However, under the BER the standard design, pre-fabricated libraries, school halls and classrooms are manufactured by the same companies that were building those identical structures before the BER.

The manufacturers traditionally deliver and fully install those buildings - at a total cost of between $400,000 and $500,000. Under the BER in NSW, managing contractors take control of the buildings and install them, typically charging about $900,000.

Those manufacturers interviewed have been outraged by the enormous prices being charged for those buildings, but say they are unable to speak out for fear of losing key contracts with the NSW government.


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