Comprehensive Debate

I wasn’t go to go to the debate tonight – ‘This House Believes that the Comprehensive System is failing Britain’s Poor’ – since I was wary of my own ability to engage without being totally put off by the attitudes on display. Owen (who hasn’t been mentioned so far, but who is a lovely guy – and not even a Historian! – and a fellow comprehensive believer) encouraged me to come with him, and I did, and I’m glad I did. My understanding is that we lost the actual vote, but that’s not really the important thing.

David Chaytor, a Labour MP, put up the defence of comprehensive schools which I believe in. The opposition also contained a young, prospective Tory MP who – whilst not coming from the same perspective as me – was an eloquent and sincere speaker, and I thank him for proving that belief in comprehensive education isn’t the preserve of some Labour clique. In the bar afterwards, he said he thought I would became a Conservative in later life, on account of not being some ultra-tribal Labour person. I don’t believe he’s right, you might be glad to know, but I accept we can only wait and see. He’s right, of course, that tribal party politics is wrong: people should not vote Labour because of their ‘roots’, and should not pretend that the two-party system genuinely reflects a straight and simple division of views. My only difference with him is that I don’t believe the Tories are the only pragmatic party in British politics anymore: Labour has changed, and can change further, to better represent those of us who are not Conservatives, but do want more than pantomime politics.

Of the people speaking in favour of the motion, the two notable figures were Anthony Seldon and Peter Hitchens. Two very different men, of course. Peter Hitchens, for those of you who don’t have the misfortune to come across him, is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday with pretty strident views. He sees Britain as a country in terminal decline, and comprehensive schools as a terrible betrayal. I even talked to him in the bar afterwards, and it was pretty clear: Peter Hitchens is harking back to a past which simply did not exist, however much he would like to think it did, and he will not change. All around him he sees darkness and terror, and he only matters in the sense that he is widely read and, perhaps to a certain extent, believed. Gosh. I spoke to Peter Hitchens in a bar. It’s an experience, I suppose.

Anthony Seldon is altogether different. A likeable man, he actually prompted my first attempt at public speaking in the Union when I stood up to argue against him. Slightly nervously, I pointed out that he had argued for a broad education, not relentlessly focused on academic goals and exams, and yet in the same speech decided that ‘academic’ children should be selected away from the others at age 14. I sat down, wondering if I had simply babbled, and he turned round to say ‘good point’. Afterwards, we chatted a bit and he admitted he didn’t really believe in the proposition at all. I told him about the Brent-Eton summer school programme, and how I’d much rather bring experienced people in the best private schools – like him – into comprehensives, rather than continue this segregation. Nice guy, and I wish he could be persuaded into arguing for the opposition.

So, that was that. I just wanted to write it down before my memory grew hazy, to be honest, because it was a good night, even if we did lose. As some of you will know, I came back to learn some very sad news, which renders all of the above completely unimportant. I can’t possibly write anything meaningful about it here, but suffice to say: I’m sorry. We’re here for you.

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