John Parker MP on “public” schools

For my second MPhil essay I’ve been reading the House of Commons Debates in the lead-up to the passing of the Education Act 1944. In one sense, it’s striking how dated the debates seem from a 21st century perspective – in particular the way in which it’s generally agreed that the role of religion is to make children into good Christians. But the below speech struck me as indicating a fundamental point about how our system hasn’t changed. John Parker was a Labour MP who, during the second reading of the Education Bill made a very clear argument about the problems of continuing to allow “public” schools in England. I thought I’d paste it below as an indication of how little has changed on this front, despite it being almost 70 years ago:

“We do not however feel that the Bill goes far enough. We take the view that we should have a National all inclusive system of education and we very much regret the fact that the position of independent or so called “public” schools is left on one side for a further report from the Fleming Committee. We believe that unless the position of these schools is dealt with in this Bill it will not be dealt with for many years to come. Whatever the recommendations of the Fleming Committee on this point they will be controversial and to bring in a separate Bill after this one to deal with that point will obviously not be practical politics. Our Friends opposite are very fond of disinterring Disraeli. It was about 100 years ago that he commented on the fact that in this country we had two nations—the rich and the poor. Although that was 100 years ago, my right hon. Friend and his supporters have not yet managed to remove that blemish on our country.

This Bill will still keep a particular form of education available to a section of the people because of their ability to find the money to pay for it. That is what we object to, and so long as we have a position in which specially favoured schools are only available because parents can find the money to pay for their children’s education we shall not have got rid of this position of the two nations in this country. Access to all schools should be on the grounds of merit and not because of ability of parents to pay.

Educationally, to-day, this country is a country of three nations. If you take the adult population, only 2 per cent. have been to the so-called “public” school. What proportion of this present House of Commons have had the privilege of that type of education? Fifty-six per cent. have had the privilege of going to these independent so-called “public” schools. Looking at the other members of our education system, men and women educated at State-aided secondary schools form 5 per cent. of the population, but in this House 21½ per cent. have been to that type of school. If you take people who have only been to elementary schools, they form 92 per cent. of our people, and in this House 22 per cent.

Can you say, from these figures that we have an educational system at the present time which is a proper national system trying to make the best of the talents of the whole nation? Quite obviously, you cannot claim that the privileged 2 per cent. of the nation is so highly talented as to justify a 56 per cent. representation in this House of Commons. We take the view that we must have a national, all-embracing educational system for two reasons. First to find out and train the most talented to fill the most responsible posts. Secondly because if you are to have a democratic system working properly, the whole people must have a high standard of education—a standard of education which will enable them to form judgments on the issues coming before them and the knowledge on which to base those judgments.

We do not pretend that education alone can achieve what we want. We take the view that there must be a greater equality of income if you are to give children a really equal chance in life. For however good your educational machinery the child of a very rich man will have big advantages over those of a poor man. The machinery is however of great importance and we think it essential to include the “public” schools in the national system. In an educational Bill of this type, and at this particular time, an attempt should have been made to bring all sections of our educational life into one all-inclusive national system.”

This extract is from 19th January 1944. Anyone who wants to take the plunge into the endless pages of discussion can do so here.