If we truly believe all students should have the same opportunity to be successful, we should have an education system which reflects that.
This week Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, set out his mission: to break down the ‘Berlin Wall’ between state and private schools. English state schools are improving, he said, but can make even more progress by adopting tougher disciplinary measures, more specialist teachers and extending the school day. These, however, are relatively minor changes and represent a continuation of what successful state schools have already done. There are a multitude of reasons why private schools can outperform state schools: more funding, better responses to the concerns of parents, better facilities and, in the case of the top public schools, well connected parents with well connected children. This is not about whether you should have chosen to go to a state, a public or a grammar school; this is an argument about whether education should be subject to market values.
Finally, I hope a tuition fee system will be introduced so children who go to private schools then repay the fees when they enter into the world of work. All of these very realistic changes are possible within the current parameters of our political discourse.
However, in the end, even these changes might not be enough to close the gulf between state and private schools. The current system has and always will be unjust. Schools should be a place where children share a common life. If the educational standard in a state school is inadequate for the child of someone who is earning £53,000 a year (double the average wage) it is inadequate for any child in our society. Parents who want better standards in their schools and want to make that happen shouldn’t be able to bypass the political process by simply signing a cheque.
In the end, the question of how we arrange our classrooms is also a question of how we want to organise our society. Michael Sandel once wrote that ‘democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life.’ I hope Michael Gove succeeds in improving state schools. I hope his reforms work, but I don’t believe that they can. Yes there is a Berlin Wall between the state and private sector, but ‘tinkering’ will only reinforce the split.