It's hard to say whether Nick Clegg was playing to the gallery, or whether he honestly believes that universities should give preference to pupils from state schools. If the Daily Telegraph poll is any indication, this kind of gesture politics won't even win over his Lib Dem constituents—over 88% agreed that his proposal would be “...unfair on privately educated pupils. The focus should be on improving state schools.”
One can understand Clegg's frustration. Improving state schools has been a priority for over a generation, but by any objective measure they have got worse. At the same time, our independent schools have gone from strength to strength, and are now among the world's best—if not the best. If Clegg (and indeed Gove) really want to do something for children from our benighted council estates, they'd revive and expand the assisted places scheme.
They would also encourage low-cost independent schools like the ones owned by Cognita and other no-frills providers. It beggars belief that politicians are so in thrall to the levelling instinct that they feel compelled to attack our best schools—it's not as though Britain can afford to squander its best minds in sub-standard schools.
Michael Gove may well be the first education secretary in living memory to understand what's wrong with our schools, and he is certainly the first one since John Patten to seriously chance his political career on crossing swords with the teaching unions and what Chris Woodhead calls 'the blob'. He also understands the limitations of political power—in contrast to Clegg, whose social engineering schemes would be scary if they weren't so laughably impracticable.
And indeed, social engineering schemes are a major factor in the deterioration of our state schools. Every Child Matters, introduced under New Labour in 2003 and enshrined in the 2004 Education Act, calls for schools to give children a role in shaping their education. When schools interview prospective teachers, pupils are invited to participate. One teacher I know was asked what kind of an animal he would like to be; another was asked for a rendition of a Michael Jackson song. At some Academies, pupils can have teachers hauled up before the head if they think that a lesson wasn't good (read: entertaining) enough.
England still has a lot of good teachers (and more than a few who are indifferent or even useless). The former still have a passion for instilling the knowledge, skills and understanding that children need if they are to be at home in the modern world. They understand the importance of culture, and have a moral view of the human condition. They understand that a sense of honest achievement engages alienated pupils. The last thing these children need is the patronising attentions of social engineers, and the sense of entitlement and grievance that inevitably arises from the failure of their schemes.
Tom Burkard is a CPS education expert and author of numberous CPS reports including Something Can Be Done: Troops in our schools will do more than troops on our streets