Like Janet Murray, five years ago, if someone had told me I’d have a child at private school, I’d have laughed. Laughed and laughed. And then, once I’d stopped laughing, I’d have asked them a) at what point over the next five years I’d have been getting this sudden windfall, and b) why future me wasn’t doing the predictable thing and frittering all the money on shoes.
Of course, no one ever said this and it hasn’t happened. I don’t send my child to private school. I don’t even send him to an “outstanding” state school. I send him to a school with a “good” Ofsted rating, and one which, according to the Guardian, has a broader social and cultural mix than is representative for the local area. I love my son’s school, and so does he. Therefore I am a great, non-hypocritical, right-on liberal parent and not a misguided snob like Janet Murray. Well, it’s either that or I’m just incredibly badly organised yet oddy lucky – and I suspect it’s closer to the latter.
Murray, an education journalist for the Guardian, has written an intensely annoying piece about why she sends her daughter to a private school. It includes all the usual stereotypes and substandard arguments, detailing how she once “resented parents buying privilege through private education”, but that was “before I became a parent” (because all parents who can afford it send their children to private school – except that they don’t). And there’s the usual crap about how “the state sector is full of parents buying advantage”:
They kid themselves that what they are doing is somehow morally superior. The truth is that every person who moves house to get into a catchment area is playing the system. So are those who pay private tutors, or consultants to help with school appeals (both booming businesses). Parents who suddenly discover a faith in God to get their children into a certain school are lying and cheating.
Well, I’m a middle-class parent and I haven’t done any of these things. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m a moral paragon. Other times I fear it’s because I just don’t love my children enough to do the decent thing and afford an expensive house in a posh catchment area. Then again at other times I think it’s because an awful lot of state schools – even those that aren’t rated “outstanding” (as was the local one Murray rejected) – are alright, really.
There is in fact a state school with an “outstanding” Ofsted rating closer to my house than the school my son attends. We never stood a hope in hell of getting him in, though. You either have to live on the doorstep in a million, trillion pound house, or pretend to be a Christian (or actually be a Christian, I suppose. But that’s so far out of the range of my personal possibilities I barely think about it). There is a school that’s even nearer to us, though. That one only opened this year and is made from a merger of two “failing” schools. I am of course relieved that my son goes to what appears to be a “better” school. I’m nevertheless aware that some children attend the “worse” school. They and their parents are people, too, and if they are not getting the opportunities that my son is, then that’s not fair. It’s not a reason to dismiss the state system and all the things that teachers and pupils achieve.
Perhaps I am lucky that my son attends a good state school. Perhaps I was lucky that I did, too. But I can’t help feeling that those who criticise all state schools in order to justify their decision to go private are dismissing not just a system or an ideology, but children and parents too. It’s a way of further reinforcing an advantage that already exists. Not only do state-educated children have to cope with larger class sizes – and most cope admirably well – but they have to deal with the slur of not having been “educated” in the right way. Yet these are the children who are mixing with a broader range of people and who are having to learn in more challenging scenarios. Who is really growing and developing the most?
Of course, there is a difference between education and privilege. Private schools specialise in the latter.* Perhaps if I were rich, I would send my son to one. Because I want him to be educated, but I also want him to be privileged. This is the real selfish parent impulse to which the likes of Janet Murray won’t admit. I don’t believe that anyone should trample over others to get what they want, but if trampling’s going to be done, I’d prefer it if my kids were the ones doing it rather than yours (soz). But obviously if this were to happen, I’d pretend it was meritocratic trampling. I’d say “oh, he’s allowed to trample because he’s sensitive and needed a special trampling environment. Plus he deserves it cos he passed a random entrance exam.”
Clearly, this is all a moot point. It’s never going to happen. I don’t send my son to private school because I can’t afford to. But in some ways I am relieved that I’ll never have to face the pressure to choose.
*I’m not suggesting people who went to private school can’t be intelligent, well-educated, mega-sexy and brilliant with puns about hats. Not thinking of anyone in particular (well, okay, my partner. And definitely not David Cameron).