I should keep at the back of all my policymaking the remembrance that what goes on beyond the world of education has an impact on what takes place inside it, and that a popular culture more or less founded on the glorification of stupidity will necessarily colour the atmosphere in which children make the decisions that affect their future.

I should reconcile myself at the outset to the fact that there is no point in listening to the fashionable egalitarian voices that maintain that private schooling is an offence against human decency. Whatever we think of them they are not going to go away, and the state would be much better off working with them, taking advantage of the resources they offer and learning valuable lessons from their approach to pastoral care and motivation.

At the same time I should lose no opportunity to point out repeatedly that the “equality of opportunity” line sometimes peddled by educational conservatives is a sham, as economic, social and intellectual factors usually mean that the educational pack is shuffled to a child’s advantage, or disadvantage, before he or she is even of school age.

The playing field will always be tilted

The playing field will always be tilted, and it is an education secretary’s duty to try to compensate for this imbalance, if necessary by taking clever children from poor homes and placing them in schools where they can be encouraged to maximise their potential.

I should try to recall at all times that education is for all the children involved in it and that it exists primarily to serve their interests, rather than those of the educational bureaucracy and the teaching unions. I should not worry about being described as an elitist — a good education system will end up producing an elite, and elites are presumably what we need to run the country effectively.

Most of all, I should set my face firmly against the utilitarianism now being talked up on all sides. Schools are not there to produce worker ants, fill cubicles in London EC2, or pander to the Confederation of British Industry. Their job is to enable the children they educate to find out something about the kind of people they are and the things that interest them — that old humanist saw about seeing your life in some sort of context, in which a premature absorption in technological know-how may actually be a profound disadvantage.

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