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Don't delude yourself about why you're sending your children to private school

Janet Murray's article tries to suggest that liberal beliefs are a naive fairy tale which collapse on impact with the brutal truth.

Buying privilege? A pupil at Eton. Photo: Getty

If you follow me on Twitter you may already have seen me go into Hulk-smash mode about Guardian education writer Janet Murray’s article,“Why I sent my child to a private school.” Here’s my (slightly) more reasoned response:

Firstly, I won’t scold individual parents deciding they want to go private. I’m sure at least some of my friends will go down that route and, though I may disagree, I’m not going to lecture them at one of those Islington dinner parties us strawman liberals are alleged to attend every weekend. I know there are situations — for example extreme bullying, behavioural issues or unusually poor teachers — that might lead some parents to decide that their current school isn’t working. Just have the decency not to pretend that you’re taking a brave stand against an overwhelming tide of left-wing militancy that doesn’t actually, y’know, exist.

Murray’s article is a classic mugged-by-reality conversion tale, like the recurring Daily Mail story where a repentant vegetarian poses happily with a bacon sandwich and makes jokes about lentils. In this narrative a liberal belief is a naive fairy tale that collapses on impact with the brutal truth. Or at least this one starts out that way. By the sixth paragraph she’s admitting “deep down I don’t think I ever really had a problem with private education”. By the tenth she’s approvingly quoting free-market hardliner Niall Ferguson. She isn’t abandoning a principle because she never held it in the first place. If her opinions were so flimsy and easily led back then, I’m not sure why we should listen to her new ones now.

The worst thing about Murray’s article is that she extrapolates her personal experience into a celebration of private schools and an attack on state ones. It’s an insult to the teachers, the children and the parents at those institutions. One thing defensive private school parents always say is that they want the best for their kids, the inevitable implication being that anyone chooses a state school doesn’t — that there could be no earthly reason why anyone who could afford a private school wouldn’t choose one. Well, it’s called principle. A weird concept, I know. Some people actually (a) trust state schools to educate their kids, (b) think that a school that reflects its environment, rather than being stuffed to the gills with wealthy white kids, might have social advantages, and (c) think that the private system is an indefensible means of cementing privilege.

I attended a private school, on hugely reduced fees, as did my oldest friend. I’m grateful for the education it gave me.  It had some excellent teachers who cared deeply about their pupils. It also had layers of class snobbery which made me sick, no girls until sixth-form and so few non-white pupils that I can still name all of them. But my experience is irrelevant. Purely on principle — that word again — I think the system should be abolished, or, more realistically, lose the charitable status which means the taxpayer funds them to the tune of £100 million a year. Contra Murray, it is far and away the major obstacle to class mobility and equality of opportunity in Britain.

My daughter goes to a local state school. It happens to be a church school but there was no “lying or cheating” (Murray again) involved. We said we weren’t religious; they let our daughter in anyway; it happens sometimes. So far, the school has handily disapproved all of Murray’s smears on the state sector. It has a strong discipline, high standards and attends to each pupil’s individual needs. It’s not the kind of beacon high achiever that drives up house prices and causes middle-class nervous breakdowns during application season, but it’s a fine school with a tremendous sense of community and inclusiveness. The society inside that school is the same society I walk through to get there every morning and, despite many obstacles, it works.

Despite her initial protestations, I don’t believe Murray was ever remotely left-wing. She speaks the language of the pure market, where you choose a school like you choose a childminder or a masseuse. “Until local schools meet families’ needs and cater for each individual child, can you blame people for putting their hand in their pocket?” Yes, I can actually, because if you are raised by well-educated parents who value reading and learning then, congratulations, you are already privileged. Every state-school teacher I know says that the bright middle-class kids, except in very unusual circumstances, are bound to do well. The ones that might benefit from a private education are the ones (a few scholarships and assisted places aside) who don’t stand a chance in hell of getting one. A socially mixed school, instead of a ghettoised one, benefits every pupil.

Murray has the gall to suggest she is doing less privileged kids a favour by freeing up a space, whereas in fact she is simply withdrawing herself from them and leaving them to their own devices. In London, where different social classes live cheek by jowl, this feels like a particular betrayal: I’ll live down the street from you but there’s no way I’ll let my kids attend the same school as yours. Of course, state schools could be better — they always can — but their chances are hurt if affluent middle-class parents won’t even consider them an option.

In an excellent recent Times piece (sadly paywalled) calling for the withdrawal of charitable status, Matthew Parris examined another motive for private education beyond mere performance:

I maintain that the reasons many parents choose to pay for private education are a tangle between educational and social ambitions, and these are not the same. You’d want a child, I’d want my child, to learn the relaxed and breezy confidence, the loose manner, the intangible sense of entitlement, that comes with a good private education in Britain. There does exist a ruling class in Britain and you’d want your child to join it.

This is not education, but privilege. The purchase of an expensive education is, in part, the purchase of privilege; the social advantage of your child over other children. I am not persuaded that this is the “public benefit” that our definition of a charity requires it to offer. And I dismiss out of hand the hoary old argument that private schools save taxpayers the cost of educating pupils in state schools. You might as well claim charitable status for your car on the grounds that it saves local authorities the cost of subsidising your seat on the bus.

I think he’s nailed it. “Five years ago, if someone had told me I’d have a child at private school, I’d have laughed,” writes Murray. “I’d have said I resented parents buying privilege through private education.” Well she may not resent it anymore but that’s exactly what she’s done. By using the cowardly argument that private schools only thrive because of the failure of the state system, she is pretending she had no choice, but of course she did. We all do. Having made those choices, the least we can do is be honest about them.

This post appears at 33 Revolutions Per Minute, under the title "Private schools, privilege and "liberal" conversion narrative".