Editors’ choices on education and health care

We asked Britain’s newspaper and news magazine editors, as well as some senior broadcasters, about t

The questions

1 If you have children, do you (or did you) send them to private

or state school?

2 Did you yourself attend private or state school?

3 Do you use private health care?

4 What is your view of our public services, especially our education system and the health service?

The answers

John Witherow at the Sunday Times

My three kids all went or go to private school. I attended both state and private schools and my wife, who is naturally influential in our children’s education, went only to state school. I use both NHS and private health care, and my view of state secondary schools is that some of them are excellent but generally they underperform and a minority of them are letting down children.

Will Lewis at the Daily Telegraph

1 State school
2 State school
3 When I have to – eg, too long to wait for an operation/treatment
4 There are some brilliant state schools, and great hospitals, but the
overall quality is not good enough given the money that has been
invested by taxpayers.

Roger Alton (below) at the Independent

1 Yes, one, sent, private . . .
2 Yes, private
3 Yes, though it’s absurdly expensive and doesn’t really deliver . . . get early access to a doctor for check-up, hand up the arse and all that . . .
4 Health service seems pretty wonderful, though difficult to get in, and infrastructure awful – rubbish carpet tiles kind of thing; but my parents were very well cared for in their last days . . . education seems absolutely ghastly most of the time, especially in London, God knows why . . . partly awful parents, the dreadful random violence and yobbery of a lot of people, hostility to thought and study, poor teachers . . . very very sad that of the western world we haven’t built a free education system that people are proud of . . . also, fucking around with the syllabus awful, no games and sports, and dismal recreation stuff . . . theatre etc . . . it’s a miracle people do so well . . . personally I would advise people to flog their widescreens and try to send their kids private.

Gareth Morgan at the Daily Star Sunday

Most of what you ask is public record: yes, I have two children and they are both in state education; I went to a state school and my family has used a mixture of both NHS and private health care in the past year.
Along with the army of Daily Star Sunday readers and millions of ordinary Britons, I have huge respect for the doctors, nurses and teachers working on the front line.
But, in equal measure, I distrust the bad management and wasteful bureaucracy that puts a brake on those people, preventing them from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Modern-day lions led by donkeys.

John Ryley, head of Sky News

1 Both state and private
2 Both state and private
3 No
4 The NHS is very good when the chips are down.

Alan Rusbridger at the Guardian

1 Mixture of the two
2 State primary then private
3 Generally NHS. Have health insurance
4 I would guess the Guardian would generally be perceived as the paper most supportive of investment in public services in general and which devotes the most space towards education and the health service in particular.

Michael Grade at ITV

1 All three have been or are at a private school.
2 Private
3 Yes
4 Education: underinvested, overpoliticised and under-delivering. Class sizes and schools too big. I feel for teachers having to implement endless streams of directives coming from central government. There should be an all-party consensus on the way forward. Education is too important to be a political football.
Health: brilliant service despite political classes believing they can actually run it, which results in too much investment being poured into management systems.

Mark Thompson at the BBC

Thank you very much for asking
Mark to take part in a survey of editors. I’m afraid Mark doesn’t think it appropriate to take part in this as he does not answer questions on his family or private life and as editor-in-chief cannot express personal views about public policy matters. Sorry not to be able to help on this occasion.

Matthew d’Ancona at the Spectator

Will pass on this. Many thanks for asking me.

John Mullin at the Independent on Sunday

1 We have three kids, and they all go to state schools. That, though, is not quite the full story: when we moved from Edinburgh, we did so midterm and at short notice, and our eldest went to an (excellent) prep school. He’s back in the non-private sector now, but only because we managed to get him a place at the London Oratory. If we hadn’t managed that, he’d still be private. Our two daughters are much younger, and have better state options locally.
2 I was at Seafar Primary in Cumbernauld – and have very happy memories of it. Then, my parents made a big
sacrifice for me to go to private school in Glasgow. My elder siblings had a tough time at the local comprehensive, and have fewer glowing memories. I do feel something of a hypocrite, though.
3 I do have private health care. But I have only used it for physio when my creaking body gives out.
4 The NHS has been brilliant any time I have dealt with it – like when our youngest, aged two, swallowed a pile of a visitor’s sleeping tablets. It is perhaps less so when matters are less acute. As far as London is concerned, I don’t have too much faith in state secondary education, though such a responsibility leaves me feeling nauseous.

John Mulholland at the Observer
1 State
2 State
3 Have private health insurance through work
4 The quality of NHS care will surely vary depending on which part of the service you look at. But the health service is still free at the point of care, which is wonderful.
It seems that high-technology care and acute care of adults and children are generally excellent, but care that involves collaboration with other parts of the health service or social services, the community part of medicine and some mental health services are not as sleek or well funded. Cancer services have improved dramatically. It is so hard to deal with inequalities in health.
I think the picture in education is equally complex: tremendous advances in some areas – spending on labour and capital projects has been impressive – but has this resulted in a better standard of teaching inside Britain’s schools? I don’t know. My limited experience has been generally good, but I’m sure there is variance.
It’s beyond doubt, though, that the majority of people who work in Britain’s schools and hospitals are wonderfully committed and carry out hugely demanding tasks in extremely difficult circumstances. There are times when we present an unremittingly negative image of the UK’s health and education systems – because they ought to be scrutinised – and you have to wonder whether it has a corrosive effect on the people who work there. Perhaps all of us could spend a day in an inner-city classroom, or a night in an A&E unit.

Geordie Greig at the Evening Standard

1 Three children: all at private school
2 Private school
3 I use the National Health Service but also have Bupa
4 It is an indictment of government that so many people
in Britain would choose to use private health and private education rather than rely solely on the state systems.
For decades there has been general consensus that a good school and national health system are two pretty basic goals.

Peter Wright at the Mail on Sunday
1 Private
2 Both state and private, but predominantly private
3 Occasionally, but predominantly I use the NHS
4 Where do I start? I am sure Alastair will find the answers he is looking for in the pages of the Mail on Sunday.

Jason Cowley at the New Statesman
2 State school
3 I was a member of the company health-care scheme at each of my last two jobs – at the Observer and at Granta.
It’s wonderful that our health service is free at the point of use, but I believe wealthier people should be charged a small fee for seeing a GP as they do a dentist.
4 I would prefer to send my children to state school; fortunately, our local state school is one of the best in Britain. I profoundly disapprove of our culture of educational apartheid, of the way the richest 8 per cent or so buy themselves out of the system. I believe in streaming rather than in mixed-ability teaching, but within the state system.
Members of my family have been wonderfully well served by the health service in recent years. But it also needs urgent reform: too much money has been spent and wasted during the New Labour years.

Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail

When several days of silence followed the initial request to the Mail supremo Paul Dacre (below), Alastair Campbell followed up with an email:
“I was wondering whether you had received the questions I have put to all national paper editors about their education choices for the New Statesman issue of [23] March, which I will be editing, and when, given your stated interest in freedom of information, you might be deigning to reply.”

Dacre replied the following day:

“Thank you for your (ungrammatical) email. My secretary has been away recently and I am unaware of the questions you refer to. Perhaps you’d be kind enough to reissue them.”

Having done so, and having added a question about whether Dacre felt his personal choices influenced his papers’ coverage of public services, Campbell wrote again, twice, first thanking him for his reminder about grammar, and offering him a day’s work as proofreader at the New Statesman, then saying:

“I hope you have had time to look at the questions for my guest-edited New Statesman. I know how busy you must be but hope you find the minute or under it will take to answer.”

He also posted a public request for the information on his website:

“Come on, Mr Dacre, it won’t take long. I read somewhere the other day that you were a great believer in freedom of information, or does that only apply to people deemed by you to be in ‘public life’, not people of vast wealth and some influence who peddle prejudice and poison into public life on a daily basis?”

Finally, Dacre answered (see below), followed soon afterwards by Peter Wright, editor of the Mail on Sunday. Campbell sent a further email asking Dacre to confirm that the independent school in question was Eton and asking at what point the children of public figures did become “fair game” for the media. Then the trail went quiet . . . Campbell did, however, post a message on his Facebook page that he still loathed the Mail but was grateful for the answers. This led to angry messages suggesting Campbell was being far too nice, and a debate about who would play Dacre in a film.

1 While I am fair game to be written about, my children aren’t, which is why I never talk about them. It is, however, in the public domain that they attended the same independent school to which one of them won
a scholarship. Both boys also spent some years at state primary schools.
2 I took the eleven-plus and won an assisted place to a direct-grant independent school, which took
a third of its pupils on similar scholarships paid for by the local authority. The assisted places scheme – which had given so many children from homes that couldn’t afford fees the chance of a top education – was killed by this Labour government.
3 I have used and use both the NHS and – as a member of the company’s health insurance scheme – private medicine. I am inordinately grateful to both sectors.
4 The Mail’s views of Britain’s
public services are fully outlined in our leader columns.

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

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror