After many happy years writing End Piece, there came the big heave ho. 'Come higher, friend', said the Editor – disguising that what he really meant was closer to the middle. The previous author of this column was in his spare time an expert on Thomas Hardy – he who advised that 'If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst'. The Editor clearly had that quotation in remembrance.
The column is supposed to deal with an issue of the moment. The issue is pretty obvious. As Liam Byrne famously put it in a Treasury note: 'I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left'. Headmasters of the Noughties accepted the dictum that independent education thrives at times of economic growth and Labour Government. We have neither. Charities, businesses, district councils, sixth form colleges, motor manufacturers, they all have the same problem. Less money involves a bigger dilemma about what to spend it on. So why not economise by pulling your child out of prep school? Or out of senior school after GCSEs? Might that constitute the route to the best university?
It used to be said that there were two myths about tertiary education: the first was that universities discriminated against independent school candidates; the second was that they discriminated in favour of them. Both could not be true; and the truth was and remains that admissions tutors are competitive and pick the best candidates regardless of background. No one right-minded can complain if universities select on potential not just prior attainment – least of all independent schools, which play exactly the same game. Nor have I ever known a parent who objected to making a contribution to the bursary schemes which make such access possible.
The pressures now on universities – especially from the Office for Students – are greater, and over the last two years, especially at Oxford and Cambridge, the position has shifted. Oxbridge Admissions Tutors have wisely been seeking to alter their potentially off-putting image by inviting prospective students to come and visit them; and once such students see reality, they like what they see. If we want a better UK plc (and goodness don't we need one) an increase in competition – fair competition – has to be a sensible way forward. Any parent who thinks they can pay for an Oxbridge place – or for the tuition that will get them a certain place – needs to get a hold of the realities.
Why want Oxbridge anyway? Although these two universities indubitably contain a higher percentage of academically able students than any others in the UK, that does not make them the best at everything, or the best for everyone. US universities are increasingly attractive, unsurprisingly, since, as one Oxford don quipped, if the US contains some of the world's worst universities, it also contains a high proportion of the best.
Meanwhile, let's not forget UK art colleges, music colleges, or those UK universities which get higher ratings in some subjects than are accorded to either Oxford or Cambridge, yet don't exert the same kind of pressure on undergraduates – a pressure which can sometimes inflict lasting damage. ICL, UCL, KCL – that's just the beginning of such a list.
In 2013 The Times ran a leader called 'The Graduates' based on a comment I had made about the future emergence of a British Ivy League of universities, challenging the hegemony of Oxford and Cambridge. 'Mr Hands', argued the paper 'whose school is sending 47 pupils to Oxbridge colleges this year, is wrong only in the sense that Britain effectively already has an Ivy League, but has simply been a little slow to notice'. Perhaps so. But I'd have to say that I still need to give parents an annual reminder that they should not treat Oxbridge as the be-all, lest it become the end-all also. And I make sure I always repeat that sentence twice.
It all comes down to what you think an education is for. Schools are so all-absorbing to teachers, parents and pupils that they have a tendency to think narrowly and patronisingly. They consider schools as an end in themselves, rather than only the means to an end. What do you want for your child? A rounded personality? Happiness? The best education you can get them? Perspective helps. Education is about more than grades. Education is about more than the quality of the ivory in your tower or the masonry in your quadrangle.
But these days there is developing a new crime, a double-sided crime without a name. That 'crime' is spending money on the well-being of your child, not your holiday, or your car, or any dubious personal and private habits. Politicians think of money spent on independent education as somehow tainting parents with guilt. On the other hand, too many parents think that throwing money at a problem will solve it and that private tutors and Oxbridge mock interviews will bring results.
It is time we got our perspectives in better order. Children are our delight and our country's future. It is time to arrest the further development of that most modern and cardinal of nameless crimes. We might call it Sindependence. We should certainly ensure its eradication. After all, if way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.