The two types of Guardian journalism about where to send your kids to school

The left-leaning middle class struggle to accept fundamental truths about the state of our education system.

Type 1: Unbelievable Hypocrisy

If you had told me twenty years ago that’d I’d send my children to a private school then I wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, having gone to a top public school myself, and as an activist in the Socialist Workers Party (Oxford University branch), I thought that private schools were the cause of all Britain’s social problems and that they represented everything I hated about this country and my life. I also believed that England’s comprehensives were the finest, most noble institutions to have ever been created and that anyone who did not agree must have been influenced by the Daily Mail, the Tory Party and a virulent hatred of the poor. However, since Caitlyn and Jeremy were born I have had time to reflect. I now realise that some of my local schools aren’t as good as they should be. Class sizes in them are much too big. Some of the other children in them are funny-looking. Also, having visited my GP’s surgery 337 times this year, they have agreed that Jeremy has Special Needs and I don’t believe that the local state school can meet those needs as well as the small class sizes and dedicated teaching staff at Eton. Some may accuse me of hypocrisy but actually I just care about my children. Besides, there’s no difference between what I am doing and moving into the catchment area of a good comprehensive, converting to Anglicanism, and spending £30,000 on suing the local authority which is what most of my friends have done. I am still really left wing and radical. Just look at what I wrote last week about how I hate the royal family. I’m really radical.

Type 2: Patronising Self-Righteousness

Nobody is more evil than somebody who sends their child to a private school. I went to a top public school myself and it never did me any good, except for getting me into Oxbridge and a career in the media where I earn a six-figure salary. I have lost count of all the people at my dinner parties, who said to me:

“You aren’t going to send Caitlyn and Jeremy to a state school are you? They’ll mix with the wrong sort. And would you mind passing me some more humus?”

However, after visiting the brand new building of the local academy, and checking my bank balance, I decided that it would be in society’s best interest for Caitlyn and Jeremy to go to their local state school. No, no, don’t thank me. It’s not the truly selfless, altruistic example of personal heroism it looks like. Actually it’s in Caitlyn and Jeremy’s best interest. After all, they are so gifted they don’t actually need all those small classes and extra tuition we could have paid for. What going to a state school will give them is the opportunity to make friends from a wide variety of backgrounds, including poor people. Poor people are wonderful and I believe that to the bottom of my heart even though I have never met actually met a poor person. Also the teachers are wonderfully committed in my local state school. If you don’t send your child to the local comprehensive then you must hate poor people and teachers. And you’re probably a racist too. Not like me. If everyone did what I have done all the social divisions in this country would simply melt away. In fact we should make everyone do this. Otherwise it’s not fair.

What you won’t see in the Guardian is this:

I didn’t go to a private school and I can’t afford to send my kids to a private school. I hope the local state school is good enough. I know that most state comprehensives aren’t, and except for a few ideologues, most people who can afford to avoid them, or can work the system to avoid them, do so. What would be a radical left-wing policy would be to work on improving state schools so that they are good enough for even the most anxious, middle class parent to use without worrying. But that is a difficult policy to argue for in the pages of the Guardian, and not because of the cost, but because it would involve challenging some deeply held views of the middle class left. It would challenge the belief that children are natural saints whose bad behaviour only results from false consciousness created by capitalism, social problems and insufficiently compassionate teachers. It would challenge the belief that children learn best through play, having fun or being preached at about the importance of tolerance. It would challenge the belief that all we need to do is claim to care a lot, and have the most politically acceptable structures, and everything will sort itself out without a lot of effort or any change in attitude on the part of everybody with power and influence over education. Additionally, it would involve admitting that the question of where the upper middle class choose to send their children is an irrelevant distraction to the actual issue of what happens to the majority of our children in the majority of our schools.

This post originally appeared on teachingbattleground.wordpress.com. You can follow Andrew on Twitter as @OldAndrewUK

 

Girls playing lacrosse - a very middle class thing to do at school. Photograph: Getty Images
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser