The leading European economies all do it. Why don't we?
I attended a comprehensive school in Newport, South Wales in the seventies and went on to Kings College London to study Modern Languages (German and French). Reaching university proved to be a big culture shock. I was the only comprehensive-school-educated student on my course, although there was a healthy representation from the grammar schools there. To start with these social divides had an impact and I recall being ridiculed by one or two public school types for my background (and being Welsh seemed to be further grist to their mill). However, as with most things in life if you stand your ground and argue coherently, people will respect you. Also the old joke about having gone to a very good school - "well, it was approved " - came in handy. The ribbing soon dissipated. I remember thinking, too, that I would inevitably be one of the weaker students academically and was shocked at the numbers of over-coached second-raters I seemed to encounter, especially in arts subjects. I remember thinking: if you'd gone to my school you wouldn't be here now. I stopped questioning myself.
If I ever queried the worth of a decent, publicly funded schooling system, my experience teaching in a French lycee from 1983-4 vanquished all doubt. While I can see glaring problems in the French system (rigid, hierarchical, lacking an element of creativity in its teaching) its strength is that it has total government and public support and it is wedded to proper teaching qualifications. It's also a more level playing field for students. As a post-graduate I spent a year in an Ecole Normale (France's elite university sector) which was very instructive, and not just to my education). The majority of the students, it seemed, were drawn from all over France and from a spread of socio-economic backgrounds. This comes as no surprise when you consider their history (and our system comes as no surprise when you consider ours). What also stood out then (1985-6) was how white the student body was. I'm told much has changed since then. I do hope so.
In my dealings with the education systems of France (and Germany to a lesser extent) is how stable they are. They don't appear to be afflicted by constant change. They have a system they trust and work with it. My experience in this country [England] is one of perpetual revolution: new theories, more testing schemes, more 'evidence' of attainment etc. My kids attend a Welsh-medium comprehensive. It's not the local school, but it is the nearest for Welsh speakers. Half a hour on the bus. Other than that it is very like what I remember of my own school days (I went to an English-medium school).
I am profoundly irked by the debates surrounding education and the constant slamming of the state sector. Being middle-class, well educated and affluent I have often been quizzed about my choice of schooling for the kids. There appears to be an unspoken assumption that if you have the means (and my husband has a well-paid media job) that you would necessarily aspire to send your kids to the nearest private school. We don't.
My own dealings with education are, I would say, eclectic. I went to a state school, attended university in the days when it was all free, worked in the French secondary education sector for a year, spent time in one of its universities and have worked in (as classroom assistant) and served on the governing board of my kids' old primary school. I also worked in the feeder nursery to the kids' primary school.
Both my husband and I were very moved and heartened by Fiona Millar's Channel 4 programme 'The Best for my Child' and the challenge to the default assumption that private is not only best but a dereliction of duty to your child if you don't. It was the first time in years we had heard a spirited argument in favour of the public sector and we cheered. We have found that keeping up communications with other parents and engaging with school have been hugely instrumental in our ability to support our children. I wish more parents felt this way.
Languages are my thing as is probably evident from the above. I sigh to note that the teaching of modern languages is currently declining and that it's in the private sector that the teaching is holding up well. Whilst my kids benefit from my background in French (and Welsh, of course) others do not have those means. We own a property in France and go there a lot. Nice for us! I am constantly on the look out for opportunities to make liaisons between the school and institutions in France, but have so far drawn a blank. The French dept is small with a handful of sixth form students. Any suggestions welcomed.