Wednesday, 25 March 2009

More Equal Than Others

Having explained his own long acquaintance with Alastair Campbell and Fiona Millar, Peter Hitchens writes:

Last week, he was made 'guest editor' of a magazine called the New Statesman, a small-circulation political weekly of the left. He sought to draw attention to himself by questioning various editors and media figures on their own educations, and the schooling they had chosen for their own children - private or state. I won't go into the answers. None of them struck me as particularly surprising. After all, there's no hypocrisy in sending your children to private schools unless you are publicly opposed to them or, as the saying goes "committed to state education", and few if any editors are.

The real hypocrisy is found among politicians who laud comprehensives and send their children to selective or private schools, and there are plenty such in the Labour party, as we all know.

But what about Alastair and Fiona? What question could one ask them in the same vein? And remember that both of them attended grammar schools, and would probably not be who and what and where they are now if the comprehensives they advocate had existed when they were 10 years old.

Oddly enough, it's rather difficult. I happen to know the area of North London where they live. It used to be within walking distance (if you were energetic) of where I lived, before I fled the capital many years ago. And I also know that it is rather near some of the best, and most unusual state comprehensive schools in London, and perhaps in the country. Three of them are single-sex schools, a great rarity in the state system despite growing evidence that this benefits both boys and girls. There is an interesting shared sixth form arrangement. One of them is almost wholly unique, a former grammar school which was once so distinguished that it became a member of the Headmasters' Conference (the body which represents the great 'Public Schools' - for non-British readers, these are in fact private fee-paying schools, despite the confusing name). Not any more, alas, but perhaps some trace of its former eminence remains, as is often the case with former grammar schools turned comprehensive. It generally gets pretty good reports. It also has a special legal status, normally only granted to church schools (and it is not one), which gives it an unusual amount of independence from its local authority.

Miss Millar, in a 2003 speech condemning parents who use their wealth to secure a good education for their offspring, said of children at state schools "They are taught in fine schools with facilities we certainly never dreamed of as young people...with a diverse mix of children, more often than not by committed, inspired teachers.

"And this may surprise some of the critics of comprehensive schools, but our children work hard, they pass exams, they go to university and they move into successful careers."

All very moving, but could there be an explanation for Miss Millar's rapture. Is it possible that her own experience was not entirely typical? Could it be that the schools near her home are actually better than most comprehensive schools? Even different from them?

Might one ask if Alastair and Fiona knew about these excellent schools when they chose their house? Or how much they paid for that house? And if its price might have been influenced by the quality of the nearby schools? Or if their choice of house was influenced at all by the proximity of these good schools? Miss Millar is in fact chairman of governors of one of these schools, and newspapers have written that two of her children have attended that school. I would also be interested to know if any of Miss Millar's children ever benefited from private tuition outside the school, as did the children of her one-time employer Cherie Blair. Mr Campbell said in July 2002 that they had not, but I should like to check that this statement still holds good. I am told that private tutors are often employed by some left-wing parents who 'believe in state education' but also think that their sons and daughters ought to get into Oxbridge.

No doubt this sort of questioning would be seen by Mr Campbell and Miss Millar as an intrusion into their privacy and - unless they shared their inmost thoughts with the public - we could only guess at the facts. Even so, I think it is the only way of subjecting them to the equivalent of Mr Campbell's New Statesman quiz. For, and heaven forefend that this should be so, if they can be shown to have obtained education privilege for their children, however indirectly, their egalitarian claims look a little thin to me.

I don't want the names of the children, or of the schools. I'll stay vague about the part of London involved. I'm happy (in return) to say that, by great good fortune, my own children have been almost entirely educated in private schools, here and abroad, though my oldest began in the state system. However, my questions serve exactly the same purpose as those Mr Campbell directed at prominent media figures last week. These are prominent public figures, with strong and influential views on education policy. What is their own?

1 comment:

  1. Surely the real scandal as Suzanne Moore has pointed out is appointing Campbell as guest editor when he was the cheerleader for the Iraq war hectoring and bullying any journalist who had the nerve to suggest it was illegal.
    The New Statesman for all its many faults was against the War.
    Good interview with Sir Alex Ferguson however.