Perhaps the most amusing part of David Cameron’s speech to the October Conservative Party Conference was when he said, “I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education like mine. I’m not here to defend privilege… I’m here to spread it.”
Cameron said this with such conviction that he was almost to be believed, until he went on to laud a school that keeps having privilege spread over it and its former pupils at a cost to those less fortunate – less privileged. “Privilege” means to give an advantage to a person, or a class of persons, to confer a special benefit or honour, or even to allow a monopoly to an individual or group.
So, by definition, privilege means benefitting a few to the cost of the many. To spread privilege will actually bring about its demise. If everyone is privileged, then there will be no one with any advantage over anyone else. No one will then be privileged. Did Cameron really mean what he said?
The school to which the Prime Minister referred was, of course, Eton. It is sobering to consider that this bastion of institutionalized privilege not only has produced the current Prime Minister (Cameron himself) and Deputy Prime Minister (Nick Clegg) of the UK Government, but also has produced the sitting Mayor of London (Boris Johnson), a probable future monarch (William Windsor) and, most recently, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby).
That is a scintillating establishment line-up, but it does not finish there. Apart from the the fact that 19 of 53 Prime Ministers have been Old Etonians, what about the multitude of those who cry “Floreat Etona” who are or have been government ministers (12 in the current administration), members of the judiciary, military leaders, diplomats and the myriad of civil servants who support these. Does David Cameron really wish to put a stop to this process?
If so, then how is he going to go about changing what has been described as a ’21st. century renaissance of privilege’? What will Cameron do to ensure that all boys have the genuine opportunity of a world-class academic education, access to sporting and artistic facilities that are second to none, as well as having successful teachers attracted by impressive salaries. Add to all of this the fact that the students are surrounded daily by a community entirely directed to helping them progress and shine. There again, will this access and entry to a privileged education, indeed, a totally privileged life-style and developing world of opportunity, be open not only to all boys but also to all girls?
One suggested government plan is to use the costs of a state school education as a voucher for meeting the costs of private education. That will mean giving each student around £150,000 in order to see them complete five years at Eton! Another idea is to ensure that all secondary schools are given the resources lavished on Eton. Surely, this is to dream the impossible dream, not to mention the unwinnable fight that would ensue. One right-wing newspaper even suggested that a lottery should be held among state secondary schools, with the winners getting scholarships to Eton.
All of this may elicit some popular appeal but, spreading privilege along the Cameron lines, I think not.
So, when the likes of David Cameron talks of his pride in wearing his old school tie and how much he would like all students to be able to wear it, it would seem that he is intent on spreading something, but it certainly is not privilege. It would also be of great egalitarian interest to enquire if Cameron would include female students in his largesse.
I am further reminded that it is only a few short years ago that government was talking about the advantages of state schools, primary and secondary, becoming ‘Academies’. Was this movement in education seen as the advancement of privilege for the mass of students, or simply an attempt at appeasing those who demanded positive change in the state system? There was much talk and promises given about how academies would advance the educational enterprise by providing greater and more secure finances, freedom from the bureaucratic control of Local Education Authorities, more scope for advancement in the teaching profession and a plethora of other propaganda.
A substantial number of school leaders (who may have mistaken short term gains for long term consolidation), if not by all who worked in state schools, took hold of these ideas with some relish.
As is now becoming clear, the reality is somewhat different. The financial gravy train that benefitted early academy applicants is beginning to dry-up. Bureaucracy has not withered on the vine – it has merely re-sprouted within school governors and senior staff members.
State schools are now more directly responsible to the Minister for Education with the consequent diminishing of democracy within education. State schools are deprived of the supportive services that LEA’s provided, or else acquire these services at substantially inflated prices from private organizations. The status and freedom of staff within government schools is being lowered and squeezed. So too, the interference by government in the running of state schools seems constant.
Within education, change is a constant.
It is more than a matter of teachers foregoing salary increases, paying more into pensions for less in return, working for years beyond the current retirement age and being expected to be the whipping-boys (and girls) for every child and youth ailment experienced in schools. Government funding is being poured into private education as privileged schools, such as Eton, continue to receive government subsidies with their charitable (sic) status and the so-called ‘Free’ schools’ movement gathers adherents.
There is the blatant contradiction that some, mainly private, schools can and are encouraged to hire teachers who do not possess formal teaching qualifications, whilst there is the lament that teachers generally are ill-equipped for their task.
Inconsistencies abound. Yet, in all of this bubbling broth of cant, hyperbole and hypocrisy, we are asked to believe our Prime Minister when he says that he is not defending privilege, but spreading it; we can all be Old Etonians, we can all aspire to grace Eton’s hallowed halls and playing fields. Now we can all wear the old school tie – if, of course, we wish and can afford the privilege to do so!
Wait a moment – is that a mob of pigs that has just flown past my window!