It’s a rite of passage for the chatterati. Send your kids to private school. Feel guilty. Feel the necessity to explain it over the Caesar salad and rioja. Then look for a solution to turn the whole thing around, be lauded as a brave non-conformist, feel good about yourself, and never have to repeat your excuses again.
This, as you are more than probably aware of if you read the comment sections of our dear newspapers, is achieved through writing a whiney article perpetuating scare stories about the state education system. First it was Will Self. Then Jennette Winterson, who at least writes decent prose. The worst culprit of all was perhaps foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, who Alastair Campbell rightly complained gave us “the sense that British schools are scarier than Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Today, it was the turn of education journalist Janet Murray in the Guardian. Obviously, being an education journalist and writing for the Guardian, it was all the more important that she was able to take up column inches with her justification.
It’s always made worse by the notion that this is a stage every mum or dad goes through, when they have to exchange politics for what is framed as the duties of parenthood. Never mind the fact that only a tiny percentage could ever afford the fees of any private school, whether Eton (above) or Ringwood House, the “fourth-rate public school” of Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. Like with so much of our media, education supplements are dominated by issues completely irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people.
You can smell the guilt from the start. Murray opens with the assertion:
Five years ago, if someone had told me I’d have a child at private school, I’d have laughed. I’d have said I resented parents buying privilege through private education.
Yet within the space of a few paragraphs, she says that when Diane Abbott opted for private, her justification ‘resonated strongly with me’. Forgive me for probing, but that happened in 2003. So why was she still laughing in 2007?
The confusion of Murray’s article smacks of desperation. She attempts to eliminate every possible alternative to opting for private, including the ideal cited even by some who “buy privilege” for their children: abolish the damn schools altogether. This, Murray argues, would create an “elite” within the state system, although confusingly, she simultaneously argues this already exists.
But she conveniently ignores the solution to solving this in both the current state system and a future free of private schools: the lottery system which some local authorities have already adopted for allocating school places. And the fact that with everyone educated in the state sector, the “mumsnet” lobby would be demanding educational investment on a scale not yet contemplated in exchange for their votes.
She fails, accordingly, to respond to the most persuasive counter-argument of all – that in her choice, she is denying the sector the investment it deserves. No school can be comprehensive without reflecting society. And whereas evidence (and experience on my part) suggests that school students with more academic support at home can bring their peers up, there is no academic advantage for middle class children attending private schools.
Once again in the typical fashion of such broadsheet angsty outbursts, Murray cannot escape the temptation to demonise the state sector. Patronisingly, she implies that state schools can only cater for those whose “needs and interests” demand a high-quality “technical and vocational education”. Just as Christina Lamb insisted you couldn’t play football or survive a playground breaktime in state education.
It’s time our newspapers printed education features that provide the sector with the news coverage and scrutiny it needs and deserves, rather than giving a platform to guilt-riddled middle class journalists to justify selling out.