Discarded needles, enforced mediocrity, petty bullying, too much political correctness, not enough Jesus or competitive sport: New Statesman readers with children in state schools will be surprised – but perhaps not that surprised – to hear that these are common features of our nation’s schools, at least according to our press and broadcasting media, few of whose leaders use the system they so relentlessly traduce.
Last month’s offering by the Sunday Times was depressingly typical and typically depressing. Written by the paper’s “award-winning war correspondent” Christina Lamb, it posed the question: “What’s wrong with winning?” At considerable anguished length, she went on to explain why she had moved her son from state to private schooling.
The main problem, according to Lamb, was the lack of any competitive ethos within what was, by her own account, a happy primary school, led by a “firm headmistress and young, dedicated teachers”. Forced to resort to “subterfuge” in order to find out her son’s overall ranking in the class, Lamb was later horrified to find that at sports day, “instead of racing against each other, the children were put into teams with a mix of different ages . . . with each team doing different activities”.
Indignities such as these – plus scant knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer at the school – eventually forced her to join the queue at the local oversubscribed private school, and there she was deeply gratified by the head’s open boasting about everything from sporting achievements to A grades to Oxbridge entrance successes.
Lamb makes much of her own state education and avowed abhorrence of the “two-tier” system of education in this country. This theme of reluctant conversion is a common journalistic line, most powerfully demonstrated by the novelist Will Self in the London Evening Standard last October. In his column, boldly headed “I’m a diehard lefty but my son is going to private school”, Self described his decision to take his son out of a state primary but concluded that he personally could not be labelled a hypocrite, as he had never believed that state education was an engine of social change in the first place.
Presumably both Lamb and Self will have taken comfort from the sad story of William Miller, the now middle-aged son of the theatre director Jonathan Miller, who, in the Mail on Sunday in February – under the banner headline “Atrocious lessons and daily bullying . . . why I won’t send my children to a state school” – castigated his father for “a mistaken ideology”. According to Miller, he and his two siblings were “the victims of the most cavalier of social experiments”. Yet this was, it should be pointed out, more than 30 years ago; all would agree that state schools are very different places today.
Every such story relies on unchallengeable, intimate details and anecdote. There is no place in them for the part played by parenting, individual temperament or other behind-the-scenes factors or conflicts; according to these writers, and dozens more like them, it is the school and school alone that causes a child’s lack of achievement or unhappiness.
The reader has no way to address the manifest contradictions that arise between these stories. Lamb’s son was in an admittedly happy, co-operative primary where, according to his mother, his ruthless edge was not being sufficiently sharpened. Self’s son was alleged to have been bullied and tested to the extreme. Miller blames his lack of academic education on his middle-class parents. And yet regularly other newspaper features will castigate the middle class for claiming that the state education system, rather than their own privilege and efforts, enabled them to achieve good results.
Writers and journalists who have sent their children to state schools are treated either as slightly exotic birds that have successfully contained a rare tropical disease, or as disingenuous or deceiving, as Martin Samuel in the Times has argued, because they ruthlessly exploit their own affluence and connections to cover up their children’s poor education.
The real politics of education is always placed on the back burner. Lamb declares herself impressed by “the astonishing range of facilities and activities” on offer at the private school she finally chooses for her son. Yet the resource argument, central to the privilege and achievements of the independent sector, is relegated to a marginal feature in her decision, rather than being woven objectively into the story.
A quick search on the website of the Independent Schools Council demonstrates the extent of the enduring funding gap. Keeping a secondary-age pupil in the independent sector costs as much as £9,000 a year (up to £30,000 for some boarders). Funding for state school pupils has slowly edged up, but is still only around £5,000 per annum. Yet it is easy to forget how much state education has improved over the past decade or more. There are fewer failing schools than there were ten years ago. Almost two-thirds of the state schools inspected by Ofsted last year were judged to be good or outstanding. There are more good teachers and heads; results are better than ever.
When the Labour government came to power in 1997 roughly half of all children were leaving primary school without reaching the expected levels in English and maths. Today that figure is about 20 per cent. In 1997 about 45 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs. Now the figure is more than 60 per cent – more than three times the proportion that left school with five O-levels in the so-called golden age of the grammars, an era often subtly misrepresented to disparage today’s predominantly comprehensive schools.
About £3bn a year is being spent on new school buildings, ensuring that many state school pupils will have access to facilities for learning art and drama that some private school pupils can only dream of. And more young people than ever are going to university, but even that good news story is distorted by a disproportionate emphasis on the numbers of state school pupils going to Oxbridge – or not.
Even these figures can be looked at differently. How many people know that just under a third of state school pupils who apply to Oxbridge get in and just over a third of the private school applicants get accepted? Or that many Oxbridge colleges accept state school pupils in roughly the same proportion as they apply? Access to Oxbridge may be less to do with second-rate state schools than with how, as the Sutton Trust’s research has shown, simply not enough state school pupils with the appropriate grades apply.
But the success stories have state schools, and their supporters, in a double bind. As they improve and exam results begin to creep up, new lines of attack develop from the media. Every positive message about new buildings, rising standards, more children at university, is obscured by another, more insidious news item that undermines the good work being done.
Better exam results are not a cause for celebration but an opportunity to question the value of the qualifications themselves. The independent sector and parts of the media, joining in an unholy alliance, frequently attempt to demoralise state school parents.
All of this obscures a simple, uncomfortable truth: most parents use state schools and more than 80 per cent of them are satisfied with the service they receive, according to successive polls. But those parents (and they are the overwhelming majority, as the proportion of children in private schools has remained static at about 7 per cent for the past decade) cannot count on the nation’s most powerful opinion-formers to put their weight behind an education system in which thousands of children are flourishing, learning, feeling safe, passing exams, going to university and taking part in competitive sport.
How can those parents maintain their belief that they, too, are doing “the best” for their children against a constant backdrop of sniping, damaging assertions, anecdotal evidence or distorted application of statistics? They may also be unaware of the complex politics behind, or the context within which, so many of these negative stories – or equally stereotypical TV programmes and films – appear.
Feature writers and columnists have at least to declare their motives, to lay bare some “human-interest” details of their apparent dilemmas. However, we know far less about the personal choices and politics of the senior presenters, editors and managers of newspapers, television and radio stations, who are responsible for commissioning, selecting, editing and presenting stories on education, day after day.
Most newspaper editors and senior broadcast executives use private schools. Yet all have strong views about state schools, which suggests they may possibly have a long-term vested interest in portraying the schools they have rejected for their own children in the grimmest light. Moreover, there is a subtle distinction in their opinions about the state education service and the National Health Service, to which many of them do entrust their families.
This goes to the heart of the matter. It is well established that what makes a public service powerful is the use of it by all sections of the population, not just those without choice. State schools are getting better and benefiting from huge investment, but still face challenges in their attempt to raise standards equally for children, particularly those whose home backgrounds may not automatically prepare them for learning, passing exams or going to university.
It is a great tribute to our state education system that it has continued to improve and that its prevailing ethos – that all children, regardless of family background or parental income, have the right to a free, excellent education – is still a cherished ideal among so many, despite the relentless criticisms of some of our most influential citizens. Just imagine, for a moment, how rapid educational change could be, and what spectacular steps could be taken towards a truly world-class system, if all the presenters, editors, columnists and commentators put their combined force behind improving the state system, rather than boycotting and belittling it.
Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn are writers and campaigners for state education
Fiona is the author of the recently published “The Secret World of the Working Mother” (Vermilion, £12.99)
Melissa’s latest novel, “One of Us”, is out in paperback (Vintage, £7.99)