Despite what people seem to think, I did not go to a private school. I went to Saffron Walden County High School which was a secondary modern turned comprehensive. My parents wanted me to go to some minor private school in Cambridge. I passed the entrance exam, but I kept asking them: “Why do I have to go to a different school to my friends? Why?” Eventually I wore them down. In all honesty I should have gone to the local grammar school in the nearby village of Newport, but I stupidly and deliberately messed up my 11 plus. And on such vagaries was schooling decided in those days. Anyway, let me get to the point.
Nick Clegg is coming in for a lot of criticism for having the temerity not to rule out sending his son to a private school. As far as I know Clegg has never suggested that private schools should be outlawed, or criticised anyone else for sending their child to one. He’s certainly not in the same position as Diane Abbott. So if he wants to do it, it’s a matter for him and his wife and no one else.
We need to get away from imagining that all people who send their children to private schools do so for class reasons, or just because they are rich enough to. On my radio show this morning I took a call from Sarah in Croydon whose daughter wasn’t allocated a place at a local school and by the time she was, it was so far away it was totally inappropriate. She reckoned she knew lots of parents who were in a similar situation and had to scrape the money together to send their kids to a local private school. In other words, the state system had totally failed them. Depending on where you live, it can certainly happen, and as a parent you face a choice. Move house or pay up for private education. In an ideal world no parent would face that conundrum.
So it isn’t difficult to see why Michael Gove wants to expand the academy network and encourage schools to leave LEA control. Local Education Authorities have failed generations of children. But to think, as some civil servants seem to, that the answer is direct control from Whitehall is surely to misread the needs of children. I like academies and free schools because they are able to operate independently, or semi independently from state control. Yes, the state provides the money, but in the end it must be down to local schools, head teachers, teachers and parents how the money is spent. Grant maintained schools were great innovation of the 1990s and we need to learn some of the lessons of their success.
In Finland, I was told this morning, private schools have been abolished and there is a uniform system of secondary education. How ghastly. Variety is the spice of life and I have no objection to different kinds of schools operating side by side. The key is that parents have a proper and real choice about where they send their children. The Cleggs should have that choice, and so should everyone else.
We will know state education has succeeded when state schools have lifted their achievements to a level where they are comparable with most schools in the private sector. Interestingly, this is happening in some areas. The standard of state education in many areas of London has been transformed in recent years. Those lessons need to be learned elsewhere.