THE VILLAGE SOAPBOX
Ron gets on his soapbox regarding Independent Schools and Polytechnics
The Charity Commissioners are threatening to remove the charity status of independent schools unless they can demonstrate that they are behaving like a charity. The consequences would be dire for many public and private schools because they would lose tax concessions - amounting to over £100m a year - that would seriously impact on their financial viability. At the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (which represents Britain's most elite independent schools) the chairman Andrew Grant expressed his anger, he claimed that it was an assault on their independence. He claimed that the taxpayers should be grateful that the independent sector saves them from the cost of educating their pupils, he also said that the nation should be grateful that the independent sector provides them with officers to lead the British Army.
A poll conducted by the University and College Union showed that 56% believe that private schools should lose their charitable status, the majority also said that every penny of taxpayer's money spent on children's education should be for the benefit of the many not the few.
Although only 7% of children attend these independent schools , a disproportionately high number are accepted into our two leading universities and a disproportionately high number of our judges, newspaper editors, senior military personnel, top civil servants and many of our bankers and politicians come from this 7%. Even more striking is the significant number that come from just one school. One is forced to ask why that is so. Is it because they have learnt to speak well? I doubt that. Is it because this 7% are so much cleverer than the rest? I do not believe that there is much evidence to support that argument. They may be better educated, but exactly what does that mean? In my experience their numeracy and mathematical skills are no better than average, they may be able to dazzle us with their knowledge of classical literature and quotes from classical poetry but that does not mean they are more intelligent neither does it make them better equipped to lead the rest of us. So why is it that this elite group finish up in these most important positions? Could it just be that they come from wealthy families with connections with friends and people already in important positions who, by some strange chance possibly also went to the same schools?
No, I do not think we should be grateful, as Andrew Grant suggests, for the way in which these elite schools produce the people that run our lives and ensure the maintenance of their own wealth and that of their sycophants. We should be very angry, it is the manifestation of the class system that dominates and stifles British life and prevents us from developing into a modern egalitarian society.
Recently Shirley Williams made a plea to bring back the Polytechnics, she applauded the way in which their courses were more vocational and the manner in which their graduates were more ready for the work place, fitting in much more quickly than most of those from traditional universities. There was a lot of truth in her claims. Polytechnic degree courses were monitored by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), who were the degree awarding body. The CNAA were jealous of the reputation of their degrees, this ensured the contents of the course were appropriate to the particular discipline and ensured that the standard of the course and the assessments and the degrees awarded were at least equal to those of the universities. This was demonstrated in one example in the late eighties when a Peer Group review was conducted by The Times Higher Education Supplement in the discipline of Mechanical Engineering. This review placed the polytechnics high in the list of the best places to study this subject area. The top ten, in order of merit were: Imperial College, Bristol Uni, Cambridge, (Leeds Uni, Birmingham Uni, equal fourth) (UMIST, Bath Uni, Loughborough equal sixth), Hatfield Polytechnic, Trent Polytechnic. Just on the numerical score Hatfield was sixth. Six more polytechnics were in the next ten. In total 41 colleges were included. Hatfield and Trent polytechnics were rated above most of the traditional universities (including Oxford). Had the survey been in Aeronautical Engineering Hatfield would have been even nearer to the best.
Unfortunately the high standard and high quality of polytechnic courses was not widely appreciated by the population at large. Polytechnics were seen as second best to the universities, a situation not helped by the sneers from some journalists and celebrities. As a result most parents would rather be able to tell their friends and neighbours that Johnnie was at Uni. The decision was made to overcome this disadvantage by changing polytechnics to universities with their own charter so that they became their own degree awarding institutions. Unfortunately, at about the same time, there was pressure on all higher education institutions to increase their student numbers without a proportional increase in funding. Vocational courses, especially those in the sciences and engineering tend to be expensive in terms of the equipment required and consumables, thus the former polytechnics looked to expand those disciplines that were less costly to operate and to introduce new courses that were less demanding financially. The result is that many have lost some of their emphasis on vocational courses, furthermore they found themselves in competition with the more traditional universities in disciplines in which those universities were well established. In my opinion the pressure to recruit large numbers of students has led to a lowering of standards across the whole of the higher education sector.
I think Shirley Williams was wrong in wanting the polytechnics brought back, as long as the polytechnics were called polytechnics they were always seen by the general public as second best to the universities. What has gone wrong is not the change in status of the former polytechnics but the failure on the part of governments to direct financial resources towards the more vocational courses that better serve the national needs. Rather they have concentrated on getting more graduates, it doesn't matter what sort of graduates. It reminds me of an old TV programme that some may remember; "Never Mind the Quality - Feel the Width". Unfortunately any move towards focussing resources more on to courses deemed to be of more value to the nation would be strongly opposed by the traditional academic world and against the ethos of the public school alumni that govern the country.
Soon after that peer group review Hatfield Polytechnic became the University of Hertfordshire and has continued to grow and make a name for itself. The Institution originally owed its existence to the presence of the deHavilland Company in Hatfield, now the University has a large new campus, much of it situated on what was deHavilland's airfield.