- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

A good news story about the English educational system? Yes, it is possible to find one, amid all the reports of dismal academic standards, grade inflation, classroom indiscipline, low expectations and plummeting staff morale.
In fact, I have two stories that offer a glimmer of hope for the future. The first concerns a black teenager called Ryan Bell who, 12 months ago, was roaming the streets of south London after being thrown out of his school for disciplinary offences. Other establishments refused to take the "rude, disruptive and unmanageable" 15 year-old. Instead, he spent much of his time lazing in bed or hanging out with petty criminals.
Then, one day, a TV producer on a show called "Second Chance" waved his magic wand, and young Ryan was given a place at Downside, the celebrated Benedictine boarding school (fees, 15,000 pounds per annum). Taught by monks wearing black robes, the ex-delinquent flourished and is top of his class in Latin and biology.
The documentary is to be screened later this year. It is ironic that the TV producer, Trevor Phillips, happens to a leading light in the Labor Party, which not only frowns on the notion of private education but is opposed to the principle of selection within the state sector. Mr Phillips, will have a lot of explaining to do to his comrades.
Ryan Bell's story illuminates the central problem with the two-tier education system in this country. George Walden, friend of Saul Bellow and a disillusioned former Better":
"If the atmosphere turns sulphurous the instant the schooling of our children is raised, the reason is not that we are more passionate about education than others. It is that when the English discuss their schools they are talking, consciously or otherwise, about class. And when an Englishman's mind is fixed on class you can get no sense from him."
I mention Mr. Walden's book because its central message that the only way to raise standards is to abandon old dogmas and build links between the state and private sector provided the inspiration for my second good news story: the fifth anniversary of the Sutton Trust, an organization that is slowly changing the terms of the great educational debate. The creation of the millionaire philanthropist Peter Lampl, the Trust has launched a series of schemes including summer schools aimed largely at working-class pupils applying to Oxbridge and other leading universities, and a campaign to introduce SATs in order to broaden the social intake without diluting academic standards.
If the ideas sound familiar to American readers, it is because Mr. Lampl has spent a good part of his working life in the United States. A state-educated Oxford graduate, he moved to the United States in 1973, and made his money in investment banking and consultancy before returning to Britain a decade and a half later. Once back on home soil, he was alarmed to discover that the gap between state and private schools had actually widened.
In championing comprehensives and abolishing grammar schools traditionally an excellent vehicle for gifted pupils from lowly backgrounds governments had made it harder for working class students to make progress.
Mr. Lampl's summer schools have proved a huge success: Pupils who would not normally even consider applying to the dreaming spires are winning places and even more importantly holding their own with their privately-educated peers. The latest step in his strategy an Open Access Scheme which encourages private schools to offer places purely on merit is even more ambitious. A pilot project was launched at the Belvedere School in Liverpool two years ago, and has been a startling success, attracting talented youngsters from low-income families while managing to raise academic standards across the board. No dumbing-down here.
The Sutton Trust funds around three-quarters of the pupils some on a full-fees basis at a total cost of around one million pounds a year. The aim is to persuade the government to extend the scheme to a dozen schools across the country, and ultimately, Mr. Lampl would like to widen access at the country's top 100 private schools in the same way. That, naturally, depends on other donors coming forward and on Labor ditching its visceral distrust of both selection and private schooling.
It is a tall order, yet Mr. Lampl exudes a very American sense of optimism. He is fired up on American ideals of philanthropy, while much of the inspiration for his projects for instance on "needs blind" admissions at the Belvedere has come from talks with Ivy League administrators. As he joked when we discussed the scheme last week: "All my friends in New York were complaining that they couldn't get their kids into the Ivy League, so I knew the universities must be doing something right."
Mr. Lampl is pushing ahead on the SATs front too. This month he is arranging a visit to London by Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, who is due to have talks with government advisors. With the revelation of grade-fixing in A-Levels still causing so much controversy, the case for using SATs to gauge a student's potential looks more and more persuasive.
Mr. Lampl has been following the debate in the United States as well, of course, and he takes note of the problems with changes to the SATs summarized so cogently in Stanley Kurtz's recent essays in National Review. Like George Walden, Mr. Lampl has grave doubts about the effectiveness of voucher schemes: They may help some middle-class families but will be of limited help to those further down the ladder. Having borrowed so much from the United States, Mr. Lampl believes America could learn something from Britain too:
"For all its faults, the fact that we've got a national achievement exam is not a bad thing, and I think the combination of a national achievement exam and an SAT that's trying to measure potential instead of achievement is not a bad way to go. And although we may have overdone it here, I think the whole system of inspecting schools and maintaining standard through independent inspections is not a bad discipline."
No amount of education, expensive or otherwise, would help some of the British authors who responded to a "Writers Take Sides" survey on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Taking its cue from similar head-counts during Vietnam and the Spanish Civil War, the left-wing Independent newspaper posed a bald question: Who have the most justice on their side? a) The Israelis b) The Palestinians c) Don't know. Out of three dozen authors, just three the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, the playwright Alan Sillitoe and Anthony Julius (better known as Princess Diana's lawyer than he is as an author) came down on the side of Israel.
The philosopher Alain de Botton made the reasonable point that the question was too simplistic and therefore only answerable with c). Historian Antony Beevor and playwright Howard Brenton were among the other agnostics. In all, six chose that path, while another nine declined to be placed in any category.
The rest no fewer than 15 of them opted for pro-Palestinian conventional wisdom. "Only a Swift or a Levi could describe the atrocities the Israeli government is being allowed to carry out," railed poet Tom Paulin, which left me wondering who would be left to portray the Saddams, Assads and Khomeinis of this world and the next.
As for bien-pensant novelist and critic Marina Warner, the answer could not have been simpler: "The stark answer is that the Palestinians have more right on their side because they are clearly at a disadvantage." On that basis, I suppose, the British should start supporting al Qaeda because its head office is a cave. If you needed proof that our thinking classes don't actually like to do too much thinking, it was all here in black and white.

Clive Davis writes for The Times and The Sunday Times of London.

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