Sholto Byrnes

Let’s be elitist

Alan Ryan tells Sholto Byrnes why he thinks state schools should be abolished

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If the Prime Minister really wants some of that ‘blue sky thinking’ of which he is so fond, and for which he bizarrely relies on the utterly discredited figure of John Birt, he would do well to take the ‘up train’ to Oxford and pop into the Warden’s lodgings at New College. From the Warden, Alan Ryan, he would be sure to hear plenty of candid words. Not comforting ones, necessarily; for Ryan, a leading theorist on politics and education and an authority on John Stuart Mill, is not known for mincing his words.

‘I by and large hold the view that all governments should be shouted at,’ he says, ‘on the grounds that power is extremely corrupting.’ During the Laura Spence affair he declared, ‘In my opinion Gordon Brown is a fibber and a hypocrite and a bully. He was talking out of his backside, and that’s a bad thing for a government minister to do.’

For a bold solution to the problems of education, however, Ryan is Tony Blair’s man. (Did not Mr Blair tell us that we are ‘best’ when we are at our ‘boldest’?) He advocates an unashamedly elitist university system and the abolition of state schools, but arrives at his position from the kind of liberal and social democratic view that a Labour government ought at least to be willing to consider.

Ryan identifies the failure to distinguish between the types of education offered after the enormous expansion of the universities as the problem. ‘Margaret Hodge said wasn’t it very snobbish to say that not all universities provide exactly the same education. But it’s not merely not snobbish, it’s the brutal fact about the world. An awful lot of what passes for higher education nowadays consists of nine hours of academic work per week, and then 14-week-long vacations in which the students stack shelves at Sainsbury’s. It’s crazy.’

His answer is a highly stepped system where most colleges would offer eight terms spread over two years, with no long vacations, and in which students would continue normal jobs and attend colleges locally. Colleges would charge their own fees, with means-testing to help students from lower-income backgrounds. Government funding would be much more steeply graded in favour of the elite universities, as happens with the grandes écoles in France. Not only government, but many of today’s students, he says, are getting a ‘bad bargain’ out of a university education. The cost in debts and in foregone wages is so high that a cheaper version should be offered; or they should not be going to university at all.

In what Ryan calls the ‘J.S. Mill alternative’ to the current system, all state schools, other than those that served very particular needs, would be abolished. ‘I would like there to be exemplary facilities for, say, hotshot violinists, because that would probably be so expensive to provide that you couldn’t imagine parents coughing up for them. But otherwise the parents and the providers should get together to produce schools, charge for them, means-test for them, which the government would fund, just to get a variety of alternative visions of what a school might be. Then see what happens.’

In practice, I suggest, this would mean squeezing the middle classes. Doesn’t it smack rather unpleasantly of the class warrior? ‘I think there are fairly large streaks of class warfare about me,’ says Ryan. ‘On the whole, the people who say “let us not talk about the class war” tend to be the people who are doing quite nicely out of it. One should occasionally remind people that there is such a thing as social class.’

Middle-class parents, thinks Ryan, have got away with not paying their share for far too long. ‘The parents were paying 83 per cent top rate on unearned income in the late 1970s,’ he says, ‘and therefore have been given a vast amount of money by the government over the years as the top rate has gone down. They should jolly well put it back in to help their children’s education.’

But what about today’s students and their £30,000 debts? Ryan was ‘pulled by the hair’, as he puts it, out of the Islington working class by going to grammar school and then Balliol. He, of course, had no such debts when he left Oxford (with a first in PPE). ‘Yes, the undergraduates say, “It’s terrible, you got it for free.” But the moment I got a job I was paying 34 per cent basic rate. They’re going to be paying 22 per cent, and that plus the 9 per cent [of income in repayments] comes to 31 per cent. They’ll still be paying 3 per cent less than I was. So will they please shut up.’

If the conditions for the old post-war welfare state model were still available, says Ryan, he’d ‘sign up for it tomorrow afternoon’. ‘But it depended enormously on there having been a common threat — the combination of the depression and the second world war. People could be recruited to make sacrifices for a public exercise, which was dragging kids like me out of the north London working class into another kind of existence, making sure the elderly had dentures and spectacles that didn’t look absurd. Once you’ve got past all that, preserving the necessary solidarity becomes very difficult.

‘It also depended on taking for granted some form of quasi-elitism. There was an assumption that the number of very bright children wasn’t going to be enormous. That kind of welfare state where you try to seek out the brightest and make something of them — I think that now cuts against the ideology of everyone being entitled to something or other, whatever it might be.’ The dearth of a public-spirited elite is the last nail in the old welfare state’s coffin, says Ryan. ‘You needed that elite which was happy to operate on the basis of social esteem, rather than money, and which didn’t want to go off and destroy Marconi, or whatever it is that people do nowadays.’

Ryan’s heavily market-based education system may sound, on the face of it, a system designed to appeal to the liberal Right. But it has to be seen in the context of a society that he thinks should contain a strong welfare state safety net. His is not an individualistic liberalism that denies social obligations. ‘I have fairly fiercely old-fashioned views about people who say, “I earned it all myself.” My reply is, “Oh no you didn’t. A great many other people helped you do it, if only by preventing those who could have cut your throat and made off with it. You are dependent on the rest of us.”’

If each must pay a share, and in the case of the middle classes a very hefty share, for Ryan’s vision of a better education system, that is only because he thinks we must see it for the investment he believes it to be. The kind of liberal arts education he had, the kind in which he thinks Oxford still leads the world, is difficult for the bean-counters to quantify on their cost-benefit analyses, I say. ‘Roughly speaking,’ he says, ‘it fits in on the bit that says, “This is what makes life worth having.” And if they say, “How much worth having?”, one says, “Worth having at all.”’

Sholto Byrnes writes for the Independent and the Independent on Sunday.