Britons argue how to spread private school privilege, excellence

Winchester, founded in 1382 (motto ''manners makyth man. . .''); Eton (1440), home of future diplomats, bankers, and guards officers; Rugby (1567); Harrow ( 1571); Charterhouse (1611).

These are among the great names in British private-school education, expensive and elite. It is sometimes thought abroad that many British pupils attend such high schools, but less than 6 percent do.

A new cycle of argument has burst out in England and Wales over how much privilege and opportunity should be available for the 94 percent of high school pupils who attend ''comprehensive,'' ''secondary modern,'' and vocational schools.

The famed ''public'' schools (actually private schools) have adapted to the modern world by expanding science courses and in other ways. But they are financially out of reach of most parents and pupils.

The privilege they symbolize, however, is still highly sought after. The issue is how pupils who cannot reach the heights of an Eton or a Harrow can extract the very best from the state-supported system, which at its finest is very good indeed.

Pitted against each other are two fundamentally opposed segments of British society. Each has a radically different answer to this question:

How well can the academic excellence and leadership training that Britain needs as a nation (and that the private schools claim to provide) coexist with social justice and the need to provide more opportunity for more people?

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher represents one side of the argument. It is actively searching for ways to allow parents a wider choice of quality education.

Three ideas to achieve this have been floated in Britain in recent months.

Two have just been set aside: a voucher system to allow parents to choose among local state (non-fee-paying) schools rather than having to send their children to the one nearest their homes; and an experiment in the county of Kent with ''open enrollment,'' a plan with the same aim.

A third - reviving the once-famous state-financed ''grammar schools'' (which took upper streams of students only) - has been proposed, and delayed, in the wealthy area of Solihull in the West Midlands, amid national publicity and controversy.

Strenuously opposed to all three of these concepts are the center-left of the political spectrum and unions representing 20,000 head teachers and 250,000 regular teachers. They insist that too much elitism in schools perpetuates class divisions and condemns the majority of children to substandard schools at the expense of a favored few.

There are no easy answers. John Rae, headmaster of the prestigious Westminster School, told author Anthony Sampson, ''The biggest damage we (the private schools) do is to perpetuate a class division. But it may be the price we have to pay for excellence.''

John Booth of the National Union of Teachers says in an interview, ''We think the system of comprehensive schools has worked. The abilities of middle-range children have climbed, while those of the more gifted pupils haven't suffered. . . .''

The backdrop to the current debate is Britain's steady economic decline and loss of confidence in recent years. Many of Britain's elite associate the shrinking of traditional industries and the tragedy of record unemployment with what they see as a drop in the quality of high school education since grammar schools began to be replaced by secondary moderns and comprehensive schools in the mid-1960s.

The debate has been joined on:

* Vouchers. The idea, supported by Education Minister Sir Keith Joseph, was that parents with children in state schools would be issued vouchers equivalent to the cost of one year's schooling. They would be free to ''cash'' the voucher at the school of their choice in their community. They might even have been able to choose a private school.

But a spokesman for the Department of Education and Science confirmed in an interview that Sir Keith has ''set vouchers to one side.'' The spokesman cited ''practical difficulties'' in introducing the plan.

* Open enrollment. For two years the Conservative-dominated Kent County Council allowed some schools to take up to 30 children more than their official enrollment ceiling if parents wanted places. Any school that fell 60 pupils short of its enrollment ran the risk of being closed.

The council has ended the experiment. The popular schools were swamped with children, classes grew larger, and the schools lost some of the attractiveness that drew pupils in the first place.

* Reintroducing grammar schools. Britain still has about 170 grammar schools, some of them highly prestigious.

The education committee in the Tory-controlled Solihull area in the West Midlands wants to convert some of its best comprehensives (which require school uniforms and enforce strict discipline) into new grammar schools. The Education Ministry likes the idea.

The intention is to provide more elite education for the brightest and wealthiest in the community. But the plan has been set aside until at least 1985 because of concerted opposition from parents at the comprehensive schools involved.

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