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Opinion: Schools for scandal

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Like an old and somewhat tiresome friend, the controversy over public versus private education greets me every time I return to Britain. Quick refresher: British children used to take an exam at age 11 to determine whether they would attend grammar schools, which prepared them for university, or secondary modern schools, a.k.a. trade schools. In most places, the two sorts of schools have been merged into so-called comprehensives.

Meanwhile, better-off parents send their kids, now as in the old days, to private schools known (to confuse Americans) as ‘public schools.’ The most famous of these is Eton, whose most prominent current alumnus is Conservative leader David Cameron, who is challenging Prime Minister Gordon Brown in an upcoming general election..

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To a far greater extent than in America, sending your children to private schools is regarded here as anti-egalitarian. This perception hurts, according to a classic class-conscious story in the Guardian this week. The nub:

Parents are made to feel guilty if they send their child to a private school, but are allowed to hold the moral high ground if they accept a place at a comprehensive and spend their money on expensive cars, a leading headteacher said today. Andrew Grant, chair of the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference, an association of 250 private schools, said. British society put moral pressure on parents for choosing to spend their income on their children’s education rather than fritter it away on luxuries.

I’m skeptical of the cars-versus-kids argument, but even if it were true, I think lots of Britons would opt for the cars rather than send their kids to what are still regarded as bastions of privilege. I don’t think such reverse snobbery is so common in the States, where striving in general is regarded as natural, not class treason. No wonder Cameron is trying to play down his posh roots.

-- Michael McGough


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