Thursday, 29 September 2011

I Agree with Tony

Having been disappointed by Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land, I've been reading The Memory Chalet, which definitely didn't disappoint. It's an extraordinary collection of essays and memories - elegant, sharp-witted, warm, often funny and/or poignant - written in the last months of his life and suffused with the awareness that his life was ending. Happily, in this volume, Judt rarely strays into politics, but there is one occasion when he does and - for a wonder - writes not like a leftist but like a true conservative. This is when he - a state-educated grammar school boy who got into King's College Cambridge - considers the present state of the education system:
'Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity. The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admission standards accordingly... Today, when the British government mandates that 50 per cent of high school graduates should attend university, the gap separating the quality of education received by the privately schooled minority from that of everyone else is greater than at any time since the 1940s... Meanwhile, we now have more private school graduates in the British cabinet than for decades past - and the first old Etonian prime minister since 1964. Perhaps we should have stuck with meritocracy.'
Indeed. And we also have entirely predictable news stories such as today's latest on university admissions. And, in the absence of the grammar schools, social mobility has all but ground to a halt. I was also a state-educated grammar school boy who got into King's (Judt's essay on 'bedders' rang some painful bells, though my habits were so irregular I rarely saw mine), and I can only say that, when it comes to education, I agree with Tony.

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