GW: Meanwhile, what is a culture? Clearly it is linked to education, a subject of which I try not to talk too much now because it's very easy to bore oneself. In parallel to what you are talking about you have had a huge decline in meritocracy in Britain. Since I wrote my book on the new elites several things have come to pass. One is that the gap in Britain between private schools and state schools is now the biggest in the Western world. One reason for that is because the average private school is very good compared with its equivalents in the rest of the world.
I should stress that I don't believe in meritocracy any more than I believe in democracy. I just think that they are the least worst systems. Given that his father, Lord Young, was the author of The Rise of the Meritocracy, it is incidentally quite ironic that Toby Young is setting up a free school that if it had a meritocratic, selective system, could probably get him arrested for misuse of public funds. I think that Michael Gove is pointing in the right direction, but there is one essential point which he shuns and that is the selection issue. Cameron, like the Left, is viscerally against it. Do you remember the row that came up about new grammar schools? The whole idea of these ghastly aspiring lower-middle classes doesn't please him. But in the private sector, one of the reasons for its success is that it's rigorously selective academically, generally speaking, it's rigorously selective financially and it's selective socially. And so you have a situation which is paralleled in no other country where selection and to a great degree aspiration is for the seven per cent at the top of society. It's not only discouraged but also banned in the rest of society, except of course in existing grammar schools.
NC: Let's agree on something. Obviously if you abolish selection in the state system you are going to give the wealthy the greatest advantage. Abolishing grammar schools was the biggest favour the Labour movement did for the British rich, without doubt. If you have a private selective system and a state comprehensive system you end up with David Cameron or Nick Clegg. And in some ways it's not wrong to have Cameron and Clegg in power. At least they've had a decent education. People at the top of British politics have either come come from the Scottish education system, which isn't that bad, or the English private system. Hardly anyone has come from the English comprehensive system. And let's also agree that what makes privilege very hard to fight in Britain is that it is privilege protected by a bodyguard of egalitarians.
If you were to say we need selection in state schools to help working- and middle-class children, the presenters on the Today programme would — well, I actually once heard Sarah Montague virtually squeak when someone mentioned selection in the state system. And of course, she went to a private school, which is a highly selective, highly privileged system. And if you were to say to her, "Well, look Sarah, you're just following the interests of your class," she probably wouldn't understand you. And in her mind she thinks she's being liberal and radical and fair-minded.
GW: The other thing she would say would be, oh you want to go back to the 11-plus, just as if you criticise the gap between state and private schools you are told you want to abolish private schools. These are all reasons why I abstract myself from this debate. It is demeaning to be involved in the subject on that level. There isn't in my view a serious debate on education because no one is willing to tackle this selection issue.
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