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
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.