Just thought I would add my perspective to the debate (just for the sake of it).
I go to a comprehensive state school and am a passionate believer in *comprehensive* education. Therefore, I reject the thesis which says that brighter people that are willing to work harder (grammar schools) and rich people or poor, bright people (public/private schools) should receive a better education than someone who is not particularly bright or particularly rich or someone brought up in an environment where education is not part of the main agenda.
However, I think many people are getting the chicken and the egg the wrong way round. Many people on this forum have implied (though perhaps without realising they have) that there are 'good' and 'bad' schools and that private schools and grammar schools are 'good' schools and that many 'bog-standard' comprehensives are bad schools. But the question becomes: what makes a school a 'good' school?
I would suggest that it is primarily the pupils, along with the teachers and parents and governors etc. of the school. I would also suggest that the key influence on the types and quality of staff at a school is the type and quality of pupils and parents at a school.
The reason for so-called 'sink' or 'failing' schools is due to no fault of the government but due to the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail reading middle- and upper-class British public who scan the league tables in their area and decide upon the school that is best for 'their child'. What transpires is a widening dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' schools.
It is the issue of 'choice' on which both the (New) Labour Party and the Conservative Party are focusing in their outlooks on improving education in this country that really makes schools 'good' or 'bad'. Because in reality the choices are only available to those educated and aspirational members of the middle- and upper-classes who have the ability and are willing to research and put time into their children's educational futures.
What is really shocking is that this population misses the point entirely. The point is that a school does not make the individual who they are and what they achieve. Those decisions have been made years before a pupil is ready to apply to a school.
The distance between being brought up in a middle- or upper-class family whose members speak of interesting and high-level topical issues with an elegant and I suppose somewhat indulgent vocabulary (oh the irony!), and where there is overt opportunity to read books and discuss complex ideas and being brought up in an uneducated and unaspirational working-class family where talk centres around when the next pay cheque will arrive and whether or not there is enough money to go out on Friday night is astronomical.
The only way to reunite these disparate groups, summarised so brilliantly by Disraeli as "two nations" - so far apart in their separation, is through institutions such as education. The opportunity to unite society through a shared education is one that I think should not be passed up. It seems to me entirely plausible that if such policies of 'choice' (carried most depressingly on a wave of public support) are allowed to continue then society will succeed in becoming even more polarised than it is already. My deepest fear is that members of each 'nation' will increase their desires to preserve the divide between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.
I think the only way to address this problem is to reject this idea of choice. If the talents and types of pupils and teachers were pooled across schools there simply would not be any 'bad' schools. Granted there would not be any 'good' (brilliant) schools either in which to receive a well-rounded and (self-contradictory though it may be) liberal education in which one is practically guaranteed top grades and a stab at the top twenty universities and therefore the best jobs. But at least all schools would be passable, nay better than passable, decent - good.
But I do pity those members of Public schools that get chastised by their grammar (or effectively grammar) state school peers. To be honest such criticism of private education is hypocritical and trivialises the real issue(s). Though I have no sympathy for either groups I feel I have less sympathy for those 'grammar school types' that focus the public imagination on "destroying Public schools" rather than seeing the entire picture.
Rant over. Sorry, it was slightly longer than I expected!