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Bury the good news

How the truth about state schools is twisted by journalists who go private

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)

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times