Speech given at Westminster Abbey, March 7 2016, to Westminster School.
Standing here in Westminster Abbey this morning, speaking to you, the pupils of Westminster School, it is only too easy to grasp the true meaning of educational privilege.
The beauty of these buildings, the dizzying proximity to power and real influence – just across the road!
An education at Westminster school will surely offer each of you myriad opportunities, access to influential networks and significant career advantage – as the Sutton Trust report Leading People 2016 confirmed only last week.
I am also sure that you are all frequently reminded of how lucky you are – to be at a school where the amount spent on your individual education per year is near or well above what the average UK citizen earns in total.
But let’s reverse the accepted wisdom for a moment and imagine that what Westminster, and other schools like it, represent is a not an ideal or a model, to be replicated, but, in fact, a seemingly intractable problem.
And possibly even for yourselves.
My father was educated here. It was a very long time ago now.
But the path he followed, from Public School to Oxbridge to Parliament – the classic establishment route – has changed depressingly little over the past century.
As he got older, he came firmly to believe that not only did private education constitute a major barrier to a good schooling for all, but that it had in some ways limited his own social and intellectual understanding.
Indeed, he was intrigued by, and somewhat envious of, the experience of those of his children and grandchildren who were educated, at local state schools, alongside those of very different backgrounds.
There are many potential failings of a divided system – even for its supposed beneficiaries:
To not recognise how much of one’s own achievements are down to good fortune rather than natural ability;
To learn how to mask, rather than grasp, our shared human vulnerability;
To develop unrealistic ambition or too narrow a definition of success;
To fail to understand the root motivations and meanings of the ‘lives of others’.
The writer and academic Lynsey Hanley, born on a council estate in Birmingham, tell us how the educational divide looks from the other side,
how those from poorer backgrounds can be equally trapped by low expectations, few opportunities and a lack of networks.
In her brilliant forthcoming book Respectable: The Experience of Class, she writes that, ultimately, the most damaging aspect of class is not money and power but the ‘combined forces of outright snobbery and tacit distinction…because they contribute to the undermining of self belief.’
So what to do?
We do not need to talk of the abolition of Westminster, Eton, Winchester, St Paul’s, Harrow and the rest.
The language of the bulldozer is not appropriate, especially when speaking about education.
The answer lies instead in integration: the creation of a national system of education in which places at a school like this are not – as they are now – largely determined by the size of the parental bank account.
There have been moments in our national history when such integration looked possible – principally during and towards the end of the second world war.
There was, then, serious discussion about bringing the old public schools, much attacked for their weak performance in the pre-war period, into the new free state secondary education system set up under the 1944 Education Act.
Sadly, politicians of all parties ducked this important challenge, and our divided system continued.
Other countries have been bolder.
I am always inspired by the reforms that one small European country undertook, over forty years ago now, with dramatic results.
In the 1970s, Finland had a system very similar to our own today: divided, hierarchical, grossly unequal in terms of the educational outcomes of rich and poor.
After much debate, and securing agreement right across the political spectrum, the Finns abolished all their private and selective schools.
In its place, they built up a richly creative comprehensive system that soon took Finland to the top of the international league tables, and considerably narrowing the educational gap between rich and poor.
Finland’s story shows that the leaders of a nation can take a cool, clear look at its own unequal structures, and create a consensus for fundamental change.
I am passionately committed to the creation of that consensus here in England, and the UK, and cheered by the fact that some senior politicians from right to left now recognise that one of the most urgent problems in our society is educational inequality, which both creates and confirms broader inequalities.
Within the next generation, then, we will need figures with the vision and courage to carry on the struggle for a genuinely unified and high-quality school system.
Perhaps some of you will be among them.
I hope so.