What's eating Gordon Brown?

Liam Julian

Classes will be affected by class resentments if British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, have their way. While both men offer beaucoup platitudes about increasing the skills of Britain's workforce and its global economic competitiveness, their government is, contemporaneously, attempting to dull the few sparkling parts of the U.K.'s educational system.

In 1848, William Thackeray skewered Britain's famously hidebound habits in his Book of Snobs. Thackeray, in his younger years, was actually educated at a redoubt of such snobbery: Charterhouse, a top English "public school." (Public schools in the U.K. are independent schools similar to the burnished prep academies of New England, except the British versions are typically older and even stuffier.) Today, to board at Charterhouse (founded 1611) will cost $52,000 a year. Brown, educated at state-run institutions, has always found this public-school elitism distasteful.

Charterhouse and its ilk are not simply pricey, though--they also offer excellent educations. But unreconstructed Laborites like Brown don't seem to care; regardless of the educational merits of public schools, their exclusivity still grates. Those resentment-flames are further fanned because Charterhouse, like other public schools and many of Britain's other, less-elite independent schools, is classified as a charitable organization and therefore receives substantial tax exemptions.

Those exemptions are now, however, no longer guaranteed. Last month, the government's Charity Commission made clear that it would begin holding all independent, non-state schools to more-rigid charitable standards. It is not enough to simply educate young men and women of their choosing, sayeth the Commission; charitable organizations must act for the overall public good (especially the good of the poorer public). In other words, they have to act more like charities.

Such a stance seems reasonable until one unearths the class resentments behind it. Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently wrote, for example, that a British independent school "separates children from their parents at the age of eight in order to shape them into members of a detached elite ... these artificial orphans survive the loss of their families by disassociating themselves from their feelings of love." Sounds like one of James Joyce's darker memories.

Let's be real. It is beyond doubt that Britain's non-state schools--which educate 620,000 students and thus save the country some $620 million each year--serve the public good, and that their benefits more than justify their tax exemptions. The public schools, for instance, offer internationally renowned educations while most of the U.K.'s state-run schools don't even come close. Writer Clive Aslet notes in the Daily Telegraph, "State schools have proved consistently unable to educate their pupils to the level required by elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, which find themselves unable to take the quota expected of them, however big the stick waved by the government." Britain's economy is driven by the products of these universities, so handcuffing the schools that supply them seems counterproductive.

So, too, does the government's insistence that such schools enroll more low-income students by offering bursaries. First off, many independent schools already do this. Two hundred Etonians, for example, have their school fees diminished by scholarships, and the school estimates that it currently spends $6 million a year on other charitable purposes.

Second, the new pressure to increase the number and amount of bursaries means that tuition at many now-affordable independent schools will spike. Some of the best known public schools won't have a problem raising money from donors to fund bursaries (Harrow has pledged to raise $80 million by 2012), but others will. Thus, they'll have to raise tuition, and middle-class families will be increasingly priced out.

A more promising approach for getting low-income students into independent schools is installing an updated Assisted Places Scheme, a program whereby the U.K.'s government itself once helped pay fees for high-achieving students who couldn't afford independent-school tuition (i.e., a type of school voucher). Tony Blair's Labor government tossed out Assisted Places in 1997, and used the money instead to lower class-sizes in state-run schools, which has been a total flop.

Blair did move some in his grudging party past their instinctive dislike of independent schools, though. In late 1997, his government dropped its earlier threat to review those schools' charitable status. Yet here we are again, eleven years later, reviewing the charitable status of independent schools! Under Brown, Labor is moving backwards, rehashing the education battles of yesteryear that have less to do with education than other unrelated gripes.

Brown and Balls and their ongoing, anachronistic class war are surely making a mess of things.

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