Should elites be our benchmark?

David Pavett writes:

The English education system is beset by fragmentation into different types of institution into which our children are divided. First they are divided into public and private on the basis of their parents’ ability to pay. Then they are divided on the basis of their parents’ apparent religious faith. And now we are developing multiple forms of division based on competition between schools run as Academies, in Academy chains, or by local authorities.

For those who want to continue studies after school that is not an end to it. They must then enter a world which is divided into Oxbridge and the rest, The Russell Group and the rest, the top universities and the rest. I have forgotten the number of times I have heard school and college managers denounce elitism in one breath only to announce with pride in the next breath the number of students making it to Oxbridge.

This elitist mentality is not an exclusively Conservative phenomenon. The whole of Lord Adonis’ book Education, Education, Education is suffused with it. Having generously described the system of education in place in when Labour came to power in 1997 (on page 1) as one “from which few emerged with anything resembling an education” he goes on (in chapter 3) to discuss the need to recruit “top graduates” from “top universities”. He then openly defends this elitism on the basis that “no school can be better than its teachers” as if that concluded the argument since, in his words, all this is “stark staring obvious”.

Lord Adonis is however, far from alone. Labour Party statements are peppered with comments which take elitist measures as obvious (maybe even stark staring obvious). So here are some questions to which I think we Labour types should try to provide answers.

(1)      Is measuring school success by the numbers going to Oxbridge not predicated on the acceptance of elite institutions and therefore also of the second-rate (at best) nature of the others?

(2)      Do markets, within which people choose “the best”, guarantee the high quality of all products or is that quality highly differentiated on the basis of customers’ ability (locational, financial, social) to choose?

(3)      Does (2) not apply to schools also? Can we assume that what is good for biscuits is good for schools?

(4)      If we want to raise the quality of vocational education then should we do this by raising the standards of all or by creating elite institutions in the form of market leaders (as recently proposed by Labour)?

(5)      Should not the Labour Party commit to ensuring that all schools are good schools and to dealing with the problems of any school falling below this standard in a democratic manner and as a matter of urgency?

(6)      Should Labour not require that measures are put in place to ensure that university degrees are of a common standard and stop this talk of “top universities” which condemns the majority of universities to second rate status (at best), along with the qualifications they award?

(7)      Should Labour recognise that while there will always be top performers and other achievers who do not reach the same heights this should be regarded as a process of natural differentiation and not as a the basis for designing education systems?

(8)      Is it not time to stop talking of being “world class” or even “best in the world” and concentrate on producing high quality education for all based on standards, means and methods that have received widespread support from within our own education system and all those who depend on it?

(9)      Is it not time for Labour to explicitly recognise that the selection of children into different institutions on the basis of the wealth and (alleged) faith of their parents is harmful to education as a whole? Is it not time to end the embarrassed silence within Labour on these questions?

(10)  Should not the success of schools and the school system be measured by (1) low drop out rates and (2) the achievement of high quality expressed in the goals of the system and not by reference to the degree of compliance with external elite institutions?

It is not that I think elites can be wished out of existence. If I ever need brain surgery I want a highly trained surgeon to do it and not a butcher. The issue for me is of accepting the existence of elites as an automatic standard by which everything else is judged (thereby ensuring that most will not make the grade) and even of seeing the deliberate creation of new elites as the way to raise general quality. All these ideas are found in Labour policy statements and statements by Labour educationalists. I do not believe this is the right basis on which to form an education system that offers the best opportunities to all. Maybe I am wrong about this. I would like to know how others react to elitist themes in Labour policy.


5 Comments on “Should elites be our benchmark?”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    elites exist but they are not the criterion for success. Given the current nomenclatura at Westminster, the ox bridge elite is demonstrating that elite education is no guarantee of competence or even honesty.

    What is missing from the Labour approach is the idea that Every Child Matters. Everyone has a role and you do not dismiss anyone for lack of academic ability. From what Blair wrote in his autobiography, he agreed with the Tory Hard Right that only the bright matter. That is unacceptable but is now firmly embedded in the thinking of PRogress and those who support PRogress.

    The whole idea of university as the only desirable goal is bollocks. Up here in Stafford I am trying to find out about the career of a girl from a local high school called Jacqueline Parade. According to the local paper, she rejected university for a life as a dancer.

    And finished up for 7 years as the head dancer at the Moulin ROuge. Was she a failure? And more to the point, if she had NOT made head dancer at what is the dance equivalent of Oxbridge, would she have been a failure?

    Many are called, few serve. SO what. THe parish priest is as vital to the church as the archbishop. WIth parish priests you can get an archbishop. But if you only have an archbishop, you don’t have a church.

    Back to basics please. Every child matters.

    trevor fisher

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    David rightly raises all sorts of questions that many in the Labour Party seem to want to avoid.
    While elitism is unlikely to be overcome without more general moves towards a more equaland democratic society there are a number of concrete measures which Labour should commit itself to, and without which the ‘ one nation’ aim cannot be seriously promoted.
    1) Abolish selective ( grammar) schools. They operate fully in Kent, Lincolnshire and Buckinghamshire, and partially in many other authorities. They are a stain which it is shameful that the Blair/Brown governments did not end.
    2) Restrict a single university’s intake from private schools to the proportion of those students applying for university as a whole. ( about 9%) . That will change the social composition of Oxbridge!
    3) Remove charitable status from all private schools.( We are told there is a legal problem about this. It can be overcome quite easily.)
    4) Remove public funding from all ‘faith’ schools.( There could otherwise be a significant increase in demand which cannot be opposed except on discriminatory grounds.)

    Modest measures like these would be a start to tackling the elitism that pollutes our educational system, but it is the abolition of all private education that should be our eventual aim.

  3. Young, Vanessa ( says:

    Dear John,

    I really value your communications and am doing my best to circulate them in my Faculty. We have a Faculty blog (see below). I wonder if you might consider making a contribution to this.

    Kind regards


    Visit our Faculty of Education Blog: Consider-ed

    Vanessa Young

    Principal Lecturer Education

    Post Graduate Initial Teacher Education (POINTED)

    Canterbury Christ Church University

    Regional Coordinator South East for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust (CPRT)

    Tel: 07979 129074


  4. David Pavett says:

    I agree with both Trevor and Peter. In particular I agree that the university is the most desirable goal for everyone makes little sense and says more about the limited horizons of the people who think that than it does about the real world. The insane harping on about how great it is to go to Oxbridge or the “top universities”. It is numerically obvious that only a minority can do this – whatever the social arrangements. Talk of making it possible for children from deprived backgrounds to attain these dizzy heights is therefore essentially meaningless rhetoric. As Trevor says, the evidence is before us: going to Oxbridge is no guaranteed of competence. I am inclined to say that it also has a social function of making its students think that they have somehow “arrived” and thereby absorbing them into broad acceptance of the our social framework (the Labour Party provides copious evidence for this). In other words, this is how elitism performs an ideological function.

    Peter is right, in my view about (1) grammar schools, (2) university intake, (3) charitable status, (4) and faith schools. Currently these are all no-go areas for Labour. Is it possible to talk meaningfully of a “one-nation education policy” while this remains the case? I do not see how.

  5. David Pavett says:

    Sorry, mistake in first sentence of my last post. Should have read ” I agree to assume that that the university is the most desirable …” rather than ” I agree that the university is the most desirable …”