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State education hypocrites aren’t new, but does Cameron really want to be one?

1 February 2016

1:58 PM

1 February 2016

1:58 PM

You can expect an oddly muted response to the news that the Camerons may be sending their son Elwen to Colet Court, the feeder prep for St Paul’s (public…i.e. private) school. All those pundits who are usually reliably furious at social immobility and Tory cuts are, I find, prone to pull their punches on this one.

The reason is a certain diffidence about having to out themselves as users of private education themselves. Tu quoque, other people observe, and the impeccably liberal commentators slink off to expend their moral indignation on legal aid or the migrant crisis, things usefully remote from their own lives. I haven’t seen quite such a scramble from the moral high ground since Nick Clegg launched his crusade against unpaid internships and the phenomenon of people giving their own children a leg up into employment through their personal contacts… the silence on that one was, as they say, deafening.

As for the Camerons’ reported about-turn on their commitment to state education, I’ve been observing the phenomenon at close quarters myself. My son attended and my daughter still attends, a very good little Catholic state primary in West London, popular with media types, former politicians and upwardly mobile Poles, Albanians and Africans. And what’s dandy for small children – the social mix, the chutzpah of a classmate with a dad in prison, the variety of ethnicities  – somehow loses its lustre when it comes to secondary school options. All of a sudden the parents take on a ruthlessly pragmatic bent: are the sports facilities actually up to scratch at the state secondaries? (answer: no, because, probably under a Tory government, it sold off its playing fields); what about the Oxbridge chances?

I was, frankly, astounded at parents who got their children a place at a good state secondary (good enough for the Blairs) and who simply turned down their places in favour of a nearby private school. ‘Why would you pay?’ I asked one parent bluntly. ‘It’s the sport,’ the mother answered, unabashed. That and the relentless emphasis on starred As at A-level. Quite a few parents did in fact opt-out of the nice Catholic primary to send their sons to Colet Court, on the basis that this was the way to stretch them academically, and pretty well guarantee the place at St Paul’s that pretty well guarantees the place at Oxbridge.

Well, free world and all that, and if Harriet Harman, Polly Toynbee and Diane Abbott and the younger generation of bendy liberals want to send their children to schools that can cost £18,000 a year, one wouldn’t wish to stop them. I really do take exception, though, to those liberal journalists who gun for church schools as socially divisive when they’ve taken the route that divides children on purely monetary grounds.

But for the Camerons, I think it sucks if they’re taking Elwen out of the state system. I don’t think they would have done it if David Cameron were not standing down at the next election. Especially given that he could practically have taken his pick of any state school he fancies. There are state secondaries and state secondaries, and I, like Michael Gove and Nick Clegg, happen to be fortunate in having the option of church schools for my children (the ‘faith’ schools designation has a bit of the whiff of the madrassa). That option is also available to the Camerons; they’re not going to be sending their son to that Westminster school where children sign up for Isis and assault the teachers. But if your child is in the system, you have a stake in it; the governance, the funding, the ethos, affects you.

But it looks like the Camerons won’t be going there with Elwen. Which makes you look twice, three times, at the virtue signalling the PM is engaged in on the question of social mobility, race and the universities. The universities are meritocratic, simple as that. But race and social mobility are issues on which the PM can grandstand in the safe knowledge that none of it affects him.

Except he’s not remote from the issue. If astute parents like the Camerons simply opt out of state schools – dispiritingly, SamCam is reported to have said she doesn’t want to handicap their children’s chances on the basis of politics – then I am afraid it does affect the residue of children, the rest of us. Elwen Cameron would do wonders for the standing of whatever state school he were to attend, a bit like Prince George; for his parents, the insight you get into the system by having a child in it is worth any number of special advisers.

If the Camerons really cared about state schooling the PM probably wouldn’t have sacked Michael Gove as Education Secretary; he was the man who single handedly did away with grade inflation and his radicalism lay precisely in being unwilling to accept different standards in the state sector and in the private. Nicky Morgan is the kind of Education Secretary who is good enough for other people’s children, not your own. The personal is political here. If Elwen Cameron is put down for Colet Court I think the rest of us should switch off when the PM sounds off about social mobility. Simple as that.

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