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Gove, Cameron and the myth of ‘state vs private’ schools

10 March 2014

12:51 PM

10 March 2014

12:51 PM

Will David Cameron send his kids to a state secondary school, as Michael Gove is doing? Today’s papers are following up James Forsyth’s suggestion that Cameron will slum it as well. But this story takes, as its premise, the ludicrous notion of a binary divide between private and public. In fact, anyone lucky (and, let’s face it, rich) enough to get into a good state secondary in London has no need of going private. And this is arguably the greater scandal.

I can offer an example. I’m house-hunting the moment, and last weekend viewed this cramped wee house, with poky rooms, listed for an outrageous price. But the estate agent justified the premium by explaining: ‘It’s in the catchment area for Tiffin School’ – one of the best schools in the land, with attainment better than most private schools. Whoever buys that house would pay about £150,000 more than the property would be worth just outside the catchment area. But you’d be buying access to one of the best schools in Britain. A father of three could save well over £150,000 on school fees. That’s how it works in Britain: you game the system. There are some state schools that millionaires could not afford.

Can someone – ideally Fiona Millar – please explain why this is acceptable? To me, it sounds appalling. The left tends not to be angry at the way the state system gives the worst education to the poorest kids. Newsnight’s Chris Cook once demonstrated the single greatest scandal: that our state system has a direct link between poverty and attainment. Here it is: he called it the Graph of Doom. (And should have won an award for demonstrating this).


According to Lloyds, a house near a good state school typically commands a £30,000 premium. In a third of areas near the best schools, it’s £80,000. Houses near The Henrietta Barnett School, in north London, sell for a staggering £402,600 premium over those in neighbouring areas.

And make no mistake: the parents who avail themselves of such  schools are buying their education, every bit as much as the parents who go private. But should these parents then congratulate themselves on being on the side of the proletariat by eschewing the divisive private school sector?

As I wrote a while ago, Fiona Millar said she had written to newspaper editors ask if their kids go to private school. Here’s what I wrote then:

‘Had she included me in her little inquisition, I’d be able to say that my boys are state-educated. But only in her strange black-and-white world view does that put me on the side of the working man. I’m lucky enough to have been able to afford a house in a part of London where the state schools are excellent. (And make no mistake: Britain’s best state schools are as good, if not better, than private ones.) I’ve never understood why so many on the left congratulate themselves for sending their kids to a state school, when they have played the system to make damn sure they got into one of the best state schools. And they were able to game the system because had money, connections or both. Is that really so better, or more ‘progressive’, than saving money and going without holidays (as Michael Gove’s parents did) in order send your kids to private schools?’

Cameron has, to his credit, said he’d choose his school as a parent, not a politician – ie, he’d go private if he thought it was best. I’d say the same. Gove has said the same. He frequently points out the disparity in the system, embodied (he says) by publications like ‘The Tatler guide to state schools’. As it explains to would-be pupils:

‘And best of all, when you do finally get into the Cabinet, everyone will love you because you didn’t go to Eton.’

It’s worth adding what Tatler has to say about St Mary Abbotts school, where the mini Camerons go:

‘To snag a Foundation place, go to St Mary Abbots Church or Christ Church Kensington a lot: at least twice a month for the three years before you apply. And get to know the all-powerful, very charming vicar, Father Gillean – he enjoys a good dinner party, we hear.’

Ah the games, the games. Private schools, where you simply buy a place without having to feed Fr Gillean, are models of transparency by comparison. The ability to wangle a place into a good state school (as Blair and Clegg did with the Oratory) takes skills that money can’t buy. Such skills are pivotal when the school admission code is complex. Look at the Grey Coat Hospital’s rules – it even has a quota for girls who flunk its admissions exam (see para 3.1 of this pdf).

This isn’t to criticise Gove – he’s working to dismantle this cosy system, and deplores its shocking inequality. But if there is a massive divide in UK education, which side do you want your child to be on? It’s a no-brainer. Gove is in the position where he can choose. He was a successful journalist, now politician, married to another successful journalist. Unlike most millionaires in the Cabinet, the Goves’ wealth is earned, rather than inherited. They deserve their success.

But in Britain today, wealth tends to bring with it the ability to send kids to the best state schools. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

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