Amber Light for Public Schools?
By RICHARD R HODES JAMES
MR. ANTHONY CROSLAND'S speech to. the Labour Party at Lincoln, which contained a detailed reference to the public schools, was a pronouncethent. of some importance. It was in fact the clearest indication yet given about the direction of official policy regarding the private sector of education. And it was important for what it said and did not say. Like the City after Mr. Callaghan had told them what he was really going to do with them, we in the public schools probably feel happier. A measure of certainty has brought a measure of relief.
Mr. Crosland rejected the root-and-branch solution of the extremists, 'those pessimists who, believing that the problem is utterly hopeless and intractable, would convert all schools into Borstals and mental institutions, or at the very least would nationalise them compulsorily.' He also rejected 'the idea that the problem is solved if the schools admit a derisory minority of children from the state system.'
This is encouraging. Over the last months the
Government has been subjected to left- wing pressures to hasten the attack on the private sector. This may well have expedited Mr. Prentice's exploratory tour, which included Eton, Marlborough and Westminster. But it has enabled him to meet people. 'What is emerging,' he said in a recent interview, 'is the makings of a practical policy.' This pragntatic approach is surely the right one. The departure of Mr. Michael Stewart to the Foreign Office has brought to educational policy-making a new flexibility. This is reflected also in the go-slow on compre- hensives. Maybe the Government realises that technocrats come from grammar schools.
Many of us at public schools are particularly
relieved that the two possible radical solutions have been given up. These are the sixth-form college and the school for problem children. The sixth-form college is the current plaything of the educational press. The idea behind it, that sixth- formers should be segregated in order to pursue their studies unhampered by other ties, is in fact already being tried out. A sprinkling of grammar schools an,d one or two girls' schools have set up sixth-form houses, where the students have no responsibilities and a large measure of dis- Cretion about how to work. Details of these experiments and the ethos behind them can be seen in Where? and Sixth Form Opinion.
This idea has superficial attractions; for in-
stance, it conditions young people for the uni- versity, and the ardent young sixth-form master, inebriated with the pursuit of knowledge, may fall for it. But many of us in public schools are unhappy about it. It is symptomatic of a trend that cannot be regarded with comfort ; the self- regarding meritocracy hell-bent on 'A' and 'S' Levels and dreaming wistfully of the coffee tables of Sussex and the student blocks of Essex. Maybe this is what will bring dynamism to the economy and the kind of dyspeptic free-for-all we saw in The Plane-makers. But it is not a brand of excellence that the public schools have set out to achieve. The cliche of 'the whole man' is worth pondering, also that of 'service to the community.' Neither of these will get a look in
if the cult of the sixth form is pursued further.
This is Crowther gone mad. Somewhere along the line has arisen a confusion, not really resolved, between physical maturity and intellectual self- esteem.
It is also good to know that we are not to be turned into schools for children from unsatis-
factory homes; though this was the basis of the recommendations of the 1960 Working Party on Assistance with the Cost of Boarding Edu- cation, and is also the basis of the rapidly ex- panding Russian boarding system. Experience in running a boarding house has taught me that it is not possible to absorb more than a limited number of problem children into a boarding community without severe strains. The experi- ence of approved schools in the last few years has done little to diminish this conviction.
So the red light has gone. Our future existence seems assured, and a good deal of educational nonsense has been disposed of. The cynics in our common rooms can laugh it off and think themselves once more secure from change. But they will be wrong. We now face a social chal- lenge that will be the test of our right to con- tinue. On the positive side Mr. Crosland is negotiating to open public schools to a much wider social stratum. 'I hope,' he says, 'that I can count on the complete co-operation of the schools and the governing bodies in achieving a genuine democratisation.'
Two pilot schemes are starting already. Two of the progressives of the independent schools, Mr. Dancy of Marlborough and Mr. Wright of Shrewsbury, are arranging for a limited intake
of boys from state primary schools. It is pos- sible to 'regard these ventures as pale reincarna- tions of Fleming or sops to the Government (what Mr. Crosland describes as 'fig leaves'). They are in fact genuine attempts to show the way ahead. Headmasters may prinnise support for the new integration ideas. But the weight of sus- taining them will fall on the shoulders of the staffs and the boys already there, And both these groups would confess that the notion of putting to the test their protestations of broadmindedness is a daunting one:
A whole host of problems follow in the wake of Mr. Crosland. the kind that have always bedevilled the question. How are the entrants to he selected? We are told that the demand for boarding education is growing. Who is to have first pick? What rate of dilution is sufficient to ensure that the public schools are democrat- ised and not submerged? Who is going. to pay (the LEAs packed up Fleming because they were unwilling to foot the bill)?
There is a case for saying that the public schools should combine to support the Crosland proposals and make a viable scheme before the extremists get busy again and seek to bear the minister away in a torrent of New Statesman vitriol. And today when (whisper who dares) the pressure on public school places has for the moment eased appreciably, the time for a bold bargain may have arrived. We certainly cannot continue to cry 'Hands off!'