Two Brains Willetts reveals his private (school) thoughts

One thing you can say about Higher Education minister David Willetts latest musings is that they show his thinking very clearly. This morning he ‘tested the waters’ with the idea that rich children can buy their way into places at top universities for a premium price, and the spare cash left over (after overheads etc etc…) will create more places for ‘poor children’. An, er, under-tested idea that’s admirable for its honesty at least, and offers perhaps the clearest sense yet of what stands for an ideology – or is it a strategy –  for this government. Truly conservative, in the sense of applying ways of thinking about charity, reward and accidents of birth that I thought had gone out with with the gas lamps. But also another example of an absence of political experience, instinct, of nose for the public mood among the key players? Would Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair have made – or tolerated – such an artless short term blunder?

One thing though: isn’t it hypocritical to criticise Willetts’ sketch plan to allow parents to buy university places but to accept – even participate in – a private school system that effectively does just that? That’s arguably a far more insidious means of reproducing a narrow social elite than buying into  the university system at point of sale if your child has got the grades. It also represents a much bigger investment by parents seeking to buy their children better access to fundamental human rights. If we care about social mobility and collective well-being then we need to think radical thoughts about what to do with the amazing resources built up in the private school system, and work hard to make the state system’s offer to parents too good to turn down. A few of the underutilized private schools could then provide superb short term educational ‘camp’ style opportunities for the most troubled and troubling, and the most gifted and talented (and those in both categories). We would end up with a better educated, more stable and happier society. And the remaining venerable old schools that aren’t filled with such valuable collective social purposes would make excellent private universities: their facilities are already better than most in higher ed, and some parents with more money than sense will have even more money to burn then.

(full disclosure: I’ve attended two state and two private schools. There were good things about all of them, but I’m glad I don’t have to go back to any)

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