If, in public discourse, state benefit claimants are all free-loading scroungers, how long before the same applies to those who “claim” free, state education for our kids? This is topical this week, following a £33,000 a year public school head’s suggestion that the wealthier state school parents start contributing similar amounts to their schools, if they must use state education at all. Actually, shouldn’t they vacate those free school places in favour of those who really need them? Anyone who could remotely afford it should apply directly to Anthony Seldon’s school instead; like all the most socially-conscious private schools, he has some top-up bursaries to distribute where absolutely necessary.
This has been called impractical at best, evil at worst. What depresses me is the total abandonment of principle of comprehensive education; where all segments of society, the talented and the challenged, the privileged and the deprived, all hang out in the same general location, sharing the same facilities, for at least a small fraction of their lives, and thereby do have a chance, at least, to recognise that we are all the same species, and might do best to take account of each other for the rest of our lives. The alternative is more segregation, along class, ability, and ethnic lines, putting in place the cast-iron fault-lines for life. Isn’t all that already bad enough?
Why, as John Harris asks, do £33,000-a-year private schools take an interest in state education at all? Why these unprovoked impulses to engage and liaise with state secondary schools (which often end badly) especially now that their charitable status is no longer threatened? How can institutions whose raison d’etre is privilege, segregation, elitism suddenly turn around and decide, actually, we care about the unwashed masses after all? We want to help them, um, wash. Help them, you know, to lead better lives and be more like us. Anthony Seldon professes pure altruism. Am I the only cynic who thinks, hm? wondering, what’s in it for you?
It could be anything, from desperate PR from a sector that, less and less able to defend itself on moral grounds, sees itself under pressure, to a calculating desire to broaden their pupils “experience” and make them better equipped to manipulate the underclasses in future careers as media moguls, corporate utility bosses or Tory politicians. Perhaps it’s both those things, and other things besides. But whatever it is, I’m sure it’s about them, not about us. Their parents surely wouldn’t have it any other way.
Which brings me to the parents. I have more experience of these than a state-educated lady should have, for two reasons, really: the rural place I grew up in, and the urban place I live now. Back in the 1970s all my own parents’ friends, pretty much without exception, used private schools. My parents did not associate with the parents of the children I shared classrooms with; instead, I was expected to get along, outside of school, with the pupils of what was and is one of the most expensive private schools in the country. It got harder the older I got, and snobby responses from parents and offspring alike to my lack of private school panache, fashion sense and occasional plebby turns of phrase got worse. That was one of several reasons, I think, I was an exceptionally miserable adolescent who for years virtually gave up talking altogether. But never mind, I survived it and here I am, aged almost 55, as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I have ever been.
And now in danger of inflicting the exact-same issues on my own child. On the face of it my current home could hardly be more different; it’s inner-city, ethnically diverse, I can take tubes and buses everywhere I want to go. My son gets to primary school from our front door in 20 seconds flat; ten if we run. There’s a good chance he’ll get into the decent state secondary all of two minutes away; whereas I spent three hours daily from aged 11 commuting to the only county grammar school to admit girls. Not a girls’ grammar school, note; just the only one to admit girls. My brothers didn’t need to; there was a boys’ only grammar ten minutes away. I travelled on paid-for public transport, virtually alone.
Now, just about all my immediate neighbours pay that £33,000 – or maybe it’s only half that at primary level – for the privilege of driving their kids across south London to one of the numerous snobby prep-schools in Battersea, Clapham and Chelsea. It must take them 45 minutes on a good morning; I see them from our front window starting their smart cars when my son and I have barely begun breakfast. “Ooh, I so envy you, having such an easy school run!” cooed one parent who happened to catch me outside. I won’t repeat what I said back – actually, it’s obvious – but I don’t think she’ll try that kind of condescension again.
I can’t resist it, I’m sorry – but it’s my child I’m sorry for. I’m afraid I’m alienating his non-school friends, the children from our conservation area terraces, with whom he’s played effortlessly enough outside weekends and summer evenings all his short life up until now. But wait – who is really doing the alienating? Is it really me, with my silly, catty remarks? Or is it the families who put so much effort and expense into avoiding us at the great state primary on their doorstep?
To be honest, I don’t know. Like any parent, I’m just concerned to protect my child. I’ve always loved living here, who wouldn’t? It’s a great location, a pocket of nice houses, in a world-class city; super-convenient for anywhere – and best of all there’s a rare patch of green outside for children to play on. But at the first sign my son is being made to feel inferior by his posher (whiter) neighbours, however slightly – we’ll move, I promise, somewhere where all the people who count are not too posh for the local community school.