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A number of experts want even the elite private schools to change their values and curricula. The schools, they say, should stop stressing so strongly the qualities of team play, loyalty, and administrative skills needed to run an empire and focus more than at present on developing the attributes of individual initiative and entrepreneurial skill.

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During the age of empire, Britain enjoyed protected markets and privileged imports. Now Britain needs to revert to the kind of rugged, flexible trading skills that once made England the greatest commercial power on earth.

With the empire alive, says John Rae, headmaster of the prestigious Westminster School in London, Britain could ''afford to regard what happened in schools and universities as having little bearing on the wealth of the country.'' But no longer, he believes. Racial attitudes

Racial prejudice is less dramatic than in the US: Only some 4 percent of Britain's 55 million people are ethnic minorities.

But in the inner cities, minority percentages are far higher: 33 percent in Brent in outer London, 28 percent in Hackney in London, 23 percent in London overall, 21 percent in Leicester, 15 percent in Birmingham, 11 percent in Bradford.

Indians and Pakistanis (about 600,000 in 1982) have assimilated more easily in areas such as London, Slough, Leicester, Birmingham, and Bradford than have blacker, less-educated West Indians in places such as London's Brixton and Liverpool's Toxteth. West Indians totaled just under 250,000 in 1982, most of them Jamaicans.

Experts - from Lord Scarman, who wrote a landmark report on the Brixton rioting of 1981, to Home Secretary Leon Brittan - talk of the need of British whites to overcome prejudice and fear.

In an interview, researcher James Hubbuck of the Commission for Racial Equality said evidence showed that high unemployment has heightened tensions and intensified prejudice as blacks compete with whites for scarce jobs.

Meanwhile, not a single black sits in the 650-seat House of Commons. Only one (Lord Pitt, a West Indian physician and politician) is among the 1,204 people eligible to sit in the House of Lords.

Minorities (especially Asians) do much better in business, and even include some millionaires. But in the professions, especially in the police, all minorities do very poorly.

Latest Home Office figures show that only 616 out of 121,300 police officers in England and Wales are from minority groups - half of 1 percent. Only one Indian has reached the rank of inspector. In the London Metropolitan Police, the figure is 235 out of 27,000 - 0.87 percent.

However, there is progress. More considerate and less abrasive police methods in the inner cities have helped avoid a repetition of the 1981 rioting, and more minority recruits are coming forward. North-south divide

This has widened in recent years as recession and competition have closed traditional steel, coal, textile, shoe, and other industries in the north and west - despite a variety of regional economic development programs.

Businessmen and even Church of England clergymen tend to resist assignments outside the more comfortable and affluent south. If they do go, they find it difficult to afford another house in the inflated London market on return.

Dire predictions notwithstanding, social unrest has been limited - mainly because of enormous severance payments (''golden handshakes'') of up to (STR)20, 000 ($28,000) per worker (which would take a man on an average wage almost three years to earn) and substantial welfare and unemployment benefits since 1979.

But unemployment is so high (13.5 percent), and so pervasive, that social commentators link it to increased boredom among many young people, as well as to crime and new, higher rates of heroin addiction in London and other inner cities.

Looking at the overall picture, it is plain that this country's immense potential could be more easily realized with a steady erosion of the invisible ''walls'' that tend to separate its citizens.

Next: Changes in the land of tea and Rugby.