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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2008 January 5; 336(7634): 48.
PMCID: PMC2174747
From the Frontline

The state of education

Des Spence, general practitioner, Glasgow

I swivelled our student flat’s television aerial (a wire coat hanger) and called the Sunday evening odds: “Songs of Praise, Poldark, David Copperfield episode 65 (will it ever end?), or That’s Life? Sod it, let’s play cards.” We had no money so it was forfeit based gambling: cooking oil and curry powder. We supped our sickly home brew, made with twice the recommend sugar in an amateurish attempt to increase the alcohol content. Always the evenings descended into argument: Northern Ireland, the class divide, what to do with “swots,” education. We were even split educationally, from Catholic, grammar, English public, and (me) comprehensive schools. Like most reasoned discussions these ended in wrestling on the floor, a head lock, and a squealed surrender. Nothing is more likely to cause a fight among doctors than private education, not even pay.

Some 10% of children in Britain attend fee paying schools, and I warrant that the figure is much higher in medical families. As I look at the exhausted faces of colleagues who loiter with intent at weekends and evenings desperately trying to fit in extra work to cover the cost of school fees, I wonder, why bother? Especially these days, as medical school admission panels seem to positively discriminate against applicants from private schools. It is also easy to sneer—the blazers, the ballet lessons, the parents arriving in their four wheel drive vehicles, the mixing with the children of Labour MPs and liberal newspaper editors, the sheer snobbery of it all—but this is just vitriol. What motivates most doctors is an earnest belief they are doing the best for their kids, because independent schools are “better.”

I question this assumption. Well structured comprehensive schools with streamed classes and support for pupils of all ability levels have a similar academic performance (especially in affluent areas) to many private schools. But education is not just about narrow academic performance. We live in divisive times, and recent mass immigration has further destabilised many communities. Comprehensives scrum down children from divergent backgrounds, broadening their views and giving them a direct appreciation of different classes, religions, and ethnic groups. Educating our children together offers the greatest hope of cohesion and reduces the risk of the educational and social segregation of the past. Doctors are important opinion leaders in their communities, and our influence is needed in the state comprehensive system to drive up standards and to show our tradition of tolerance.

My children will attend a state comprehensive because I earnestly believe it is in their best interests. I suspect that I may have to wrestle someone at the next dinner party, though.

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