I still remember the shock of my first encounters with contemporaries who had been to private schools (what we in the UK, in our confusing way, refer to as "public schools"). On nearly every front they seemed seriously ahead of the game. It's easy to imagine that "privilege" is simply a matter of wealth and connections, something you can buy, like a big house or domestic help. Few people realise that the famous public schools are also selective: they only admit the very brightest children of the wealthy, and raise them in an academic hothouse with bountiful resources. They are also amazingly expensive. You're going to want a decent return on an investment of between £20-30K p.a. over seven years.
It was easy to typecast oneself as Alf Tupper or Jude the Obscure in comparison. Where I had done a bit of Judo in a community hall on Saturday mornings, taught by an amiable green belt who would step outside for a fag while we practiced breakfalls, they had been trained intensively in the school gym under the guidance of a 3rd dan black belt with Olympic experience. And where my horizons were fixed at the level of exams and university entrance (and had hardly been budged by a week's "work experience" skiving in the back room of the local paper), they had been encouraged to look at school and university as mere first steps in their Brilliant Career, reinforced by frequent visits from high-powered movers and shakers in the world outside.
But, we state school kids did have our own genuine advantages. Brought up at home in working families in real communities, our emotional and social lives were far richer. Faced daily with the distractions of teenage life, our ability to focus and prioritise was well-developed, and our sense of having made our own choices was keen. You can't stay on into the sixth form, achieve high exam grades and university entrance without having an acute sense of all the things you have chosen not to do. I think it was a surprise for my public-school contemporaries to realise I might have chosen to leave school at 16 and take a job. Not just theoretically, but actually (and, in many ways, my family would have been more comfortable with that choice). For them, this was only a choice in the same sense that they could have chosen to machine-gun the staff on Founder's Day (see the film If).
Crucially, though, academically there really wasn't much to choose between the best of both systems. For all the problems of a selective state system, there was a lot to be said for the grammar school approach if you think meritocratic elites have an important role in society, and it is sad to realise that experience is now receding into history. The very last generation of "selective" pupils is approaching retirement (I myself joined a grammar in 1966, which had become a comprehensive before I left in 1972), and our old teachers are all now very old or dead. From the 1944 Education Act up until the 1970s, the existence of free state grammar schools opened a pipeline for bright children from working- and lower-middle class families into the few top universities and from there into the professions, the media, and "establishment". Social mobility -- now almost halted -- was then very much a reality. The 1960s were all about social mobility.
Of course, the price of grammar schools was the much-maligned secondary modern school, although far fewer people were bothered by that experience than our political masters think. Certainly no-one I knew carried a grudge. After all, it is not everyone's ambition to do homework in three subjects every night for seven years. A grammar-school education was a privilege for which you personally had to pay the price, not your parents.
Our teachers were, if not the best, good enough. In that 25 year heyday of the state grammar school, a feedback loop was started: able state-school pupils would go to university, and many would return as state-school teachers, often out of a sense of commitment both to their subject and to the principle of free state education. It does still happen, of course, but the chronic shortage of maths, science and language teachers is evidence of a breakage in that crucial loop -- it seems the one thing that most able kids who have gone through the comprehensive system do not want to do is go back and teach there. In a world where the link between hard work and achievement has been obscured, and insolence and aggression have been enshrined as virtues, who can blame them?
This is a problem. I am angered by the way our kids are short-changed by their experience of school. Take languages as an example. At a third-rate grammar school I learned Latin, French, German and a little Russian to quite a high standard. By contrast, my children were offered either French or Spanish -- but certainly not both -- as a language. In fact, after she had studied the subject for three years, my daughter's school actually proposed to drop French as a GCSE subject until we threatened to kidnap and cut bits off the deputy headteacher. Their compromise was to compress the two-year course into one year, have the remaining candidates take it a year early, and then drop it. I was very proud that she got an "A", but dismayed that she never once heard the words "past historic" or "subjunctive".
The situation with sciences is, if anything, worse. I was taught Chemistry, Physics and Biology as separate subjects in adequately-equipped laboratories by graduates in those disciplines. At many if not most comprehensives, science is now taken as a single "combined" course, reduced to an elementary multiple-choice level of understanding, and often taught by someone whose grasp of the subjects covered is imperfect, to say the least.
Why has this happened? Government policy, certainly. Government failure to fund the system adequately? Yes, of course, both resources and salaries. But, surely primarily because not enough good graduates in key subjects are choosing to become teachers. Why not? Because too many secondary schools have become fearful places, where containment of the behaviour of ill-disciplined and unmotivated students is a teacher's first task. How much would they have to pay you, with your maths degree, to motivate you to learn to command enough of the attention of 30 or more unwilling 16-year olds to teach them a little elementary maths? Come on, be serious, that's the budget for the whole school...
Somehow, I doubt if this has ever been an issue at Eton or Westminster. For £30K a year, I'd hope not. Even at the bottom-feeding end of the private pool -- grammar schools which chose to go independent in the 1970s rather than comprehensive -- I don't think this is a problem. It's pretty obvious why not.
My solution is simple, but could never be implemented. We should simply lower the school-leaving age to 14, and take whatever steps are necessary to provide meaningful -- and if necessary compulsory -- employment or apprenticeships to every citizen aged 14-18. Don't want to be in school? No problem. Bye!
Oh, and we'd make private education illegal, obviously.