It was the lovely Mark Steele who pointed out that, when it comes to spending money, it’s the poor who have all the choices, “swanning around in charity shop cardigans and galavanting on shopping expeditions like the women in Sex and the City, squealing ‘Hey let’s go to Poundland and buy a dishcloth’, in ways the rich can barely dream of”. Meanwhile wealthy people like James “I’m not a rich person” Delingpole are scrimping and saving in order to give their offspring the same pricey schooling they received. No Poundland dishcloths, charity shop cardigans or, um, skiing holidays for him. Instead, it’s school fees all the way and what’s more, according to the chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, wonderful parents such as him are made to feel like “social lepers”.
It’s not fair, is it? As Delingpole points out,
I could have done the decent thing and used my earnings to help drive up property prices in a good state-school catchment area; or I could be splurging the same amount of dosh on an annual skiing holiday, a safari and a lease on that nice, chunky Range Rover I’ve always coveted. But instead, miserable, selfish bastard that I am, I’ve chosen to squander my money on my children’s education. What kind of monster must I be?
What kind indeed? In his view, “a loving, caring sort of monster”. In mine, just a rich one, no better nor worse than anyone else, were it not for his truly monstrous dishonestly regarding the broader inequalities in play.
In today’s Telegraph rant he reminds me a little of a mother on yesterday’s Newsnight, arguing that people fail to appreciate the sacrifices made by women such as herself who stay at home to take care of children. I found myself thinking “yes, that’s true” until she began listing said sacrifices, which include not having “foreign holidays”. I can’t help thinking she rather shot herself in the foot there, damaging perceptions of thousands of considerably more grounded stay-at-home mothers in the process.
It’s surprising, isn’t it? You’d think that even the most deluded, over-privileged among us would know that most parents do not send their children to state schools in order to keep the cash for “an annual skiing holiday, a safari and a lease on that nice, chunky Range Rover I’ve always coveted”. Nor do most mothers choose to work simply because staying at home with their children would mean missing out on “foreign holidays”. The majority of parents do not have a special wad of extra cash marked “massively indulgent treats vs huge expenses for kids”. We don’t choose safaris over private schools; for us, this choice does not exist.
It’s such an obvious thing to state and yet it needs stating, again and again. Those who spend more on their children’s education or give up a large income to stay at home aren’t more self-sacrificing; they’re just people who have more choice. There’s no virtue in that. If anything there ought be a degree of shame. Gross income inequality isn’t acceptable and no one but the poorest of the poor should fail to feel discomfort at having more to give their children than someone else does. Even if we lack the nerve to pool our resources, let’s at least be honest: by prioritizing our own children we aren’t doing the whole wide world a favour (and yes, I know parents such as Delingpole think their expensively-educated children will give more to society than mine, but that’s just confusing shouting loudest with contributing most).
I do know how the thinking goes. Sure, you could have bought a car but you got a private tutor instead. Give yourself a pat on the back! Meanwhile, I could have watched the Great British Bake-Off but I helped my son with his reading. Don’t I at least get a cookie, too? What’s more, I spent the whole day at work helping to cover the imaginary shortfall in taxes caused by all those stay-at-home mums. How ace am I? And yes, you could argue that bringing in a wage benefits me in the first instance, as does helping my son rather than anyone else’s. But that’s just by the by, wouldn’t you agree? Basically, when poor people do things for their children, that’s just parenting, but when anyone else does it’s a great act of benevolence. So yeah, why isn’t anybody praising me? (Presumably because I’m not rich enough; I’ve got just enough income to avoid moral depravity, not enough to be considered a Delingpole-like paragon of virtue.)
Inequality is particularly insidious insofar as the more extreme it gets, the more we’re able to focus on the outer edges rather than look to ourselves and the ways we benefit from it. So perhaps there is a degree of hypocrisy in kicking up a fuss about private schools if you’re not also annoyed about postcode inequalities in state school provision. But here’s the thing: plenty of us are. And not everyone who resents educational inequality is a middle-class parent who’s sneakily benefiting from living next door to a state school Ofsted rates as “outstanding”. I don’t, for instance, but yes, I’ll admit that I am worried about this. It makes me feel I’ve let my children down. I suspect I would move if I could. It’s perfectly possible to resent the very existence of privileges that given the chance you’d be grabbing for you and your own.
Being a parent creates plenty of moral inconsistencies. You have to put your own child first and, within the confines of your own household, that’s generous, but let’s not be disingenuous about what this means for everyone else’s kids. Without opposition, our selfish impulse to protect our own will triumph. Which is why, if we believe children should have the same opportunities, striving to create a more equal education system really matters. It’ll be annoying when your own child doesn’t come out on top. You’ll realize you could have gone to the Bahamas / watched the Great British Bake-Off after all. But isn’t that how it should be? And if that’s a future you can’t stomach, surely you should at least have the guts to say so?