RARELY can an educational year have begun in such a febrile atmosphere, both in national politics and in schools. The spotlight, which for so long has been focused on secondary schools, has now increasingly shifted on to the universities.
Universities are involved in a fight for survival, and it shows. Unconditional offers and the possibility of an “upgrade” to a “better” university when a student’s results turn out better than expected have led to cutthroat competition. It is a timely moment, therefore, for a calm and cerebral look at the part played by the university in 21st-century Britain.
A University Education, by David Willetts, has just emerged in paperback. Who better than Willetts, who once enjoyed the sobriquet “Two Brains” in his capacity as a government minister for universities and science? You could argue that he has been, as a Conservative Minister, one of the main players in bringing to fruition the Blairite vision that 50 per cent of our 18-year-olds should go into higher education.
He helped to shape the Coalition Government’s changes to university financing. He has not changed his view that “income-related graduate repayment is a fair and progressive way of financing higher education.” Nor does he shy away from some of the evident dilemmas: “As in the rest of life, some of the worst problems stem from the very features which are also its greatest strengths.”
Our universities are world-class centres of research. But, in competing vigorously with each other, they are paying insufficient attention to their students, and the winners face little incentive to look at alternative ways of doing things.
A superb writer, as you would expect, Willetts has a real gift for eye-catching phrases and incisive analysis. His successors in government would do well to read his book — as would vice-chancellors.
He confronts head-on the influence of private schools on the sector. Sixty-five per cent of private-school applicants go to Russell Group Universities; from the state sector, the figure is 26 per cent. It is appropriate, therefore, to turn to Engines of Privilege, by Francis Green and David Kynaston.
Sadly, I fear that this will be one of those books where the majority of its readers will have an already entrenched opinion, and will be unlikely to be swayed by the gently persuasive tone of the writing. Though it is far less polemical than many diatribes against private schools, the volume’s subtitle will nevertheless tell you where the authors are coming from.
While describing it as “manifestly absurd” to pin the blame for Britain’s sluggish economic performance on the existence of a flourishing private-school sector, you inevitably suspect that a “but” is coming. The advantages bestowed on the privately educated are not difficult to find. Perhaps the strongest part of the book is the authors’ familiarity with the counter arguments: “Social engineering”, and “the politics of envy”, etc. Their solution is a move towards the educational transformation which Finland has achieved in the past two decades. Or we’re stuck with the status quo. You pay your money and you take your choice. Quite literally, it would appear.
It is something of a relief to turn to one of this column’s old favourites, Grove Books. This publisher’s output continues to grow. First, Religious Literacy and Schools, by Gillian Georgiou. In essence, the author has recast the late Robert Waddington’s seminal Green Paper “A Future in Partnership”, published as long ago as the early 1980s. His catchy “No apology for theology” became the mantra for Church of England secondary schools when George Carey forced them to face up to the question of their distinctiveness in the ’90s.
Here, Georgiou establishes that the context has now evolved, to the extent that 52 per cent of the population say that they have no religious affiliation of any kind. Her approach avoids “theology” as a term, as “it carries connotations of faith commitment”. She replaces it with “believing, living, and thinking”. That is not as catchy as Waddington’s phrase, but it is good enough.
If you are seriously thinking of applying for leadership posts in Church of England schools, this engaging document was written for you. “It is a calling to live well together,” she concludes. It is ideal for the school mission statement.
And so it Igniting Potential, by Elizabeth Howat. Written from a similar Anglican perspective, the pamphlet uses the Archbishop of York Youth Trust as its focus. It is a heart-warming tale — and an impressive one. Through the Trust’s Young Leaders Award, young people are involved in social and community activity. The Trust has already worked with more than 600 schools and 72,000 school students.
Young people may be dubious about some aspects of RE, and may even be bemused by the Church’s perceived obsession with their sexual behaviour. Challenge them to join a project where they can show that they care for others, however, and you will not be short of volunteers.
I suspect that some readers will be attracted to Adolescence: How to survive it, by Tony Little and Herb Etkin, simply because of its title. On the other hand, others may hesitate when they discover that Tony Little is a former Head Master of Eton. Herb describes him as a schoolmaster. The “Master” bit jars badly now, and is best avoided. In fact, it turns out to be a readable, jargon-free dialogue between Little and a consultant psychiatrist.
An index would have been useful: if you are looking for a discussion of anorexia, for example, it takes some finding. Once you do find it, the advice is thoughtful, clinically sound, and sympathetic. There are also plenty of nuggets to make you smile: for example, there is now a need for care homes to provide free WiFi — not for the residents, you understand, but to persuade the grandchildren to visit.
Read more education features in our special supplement
A University Education
OUP £16.99 (pbk)
Engines of Privilege: Britain’s private school problem
Francis Green and David Kynaston
Bloomsbury £9.99 (pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £9
Religious Literacy and Schools (eD40)
Grove Books £3.95
Igniting Potential (eD39)
Grove Books £3.95
Adolescence: How to survive it
Tony Little and Herb Etkin
Church Times Bookshop £15.30