Private education is not just for oligarchs and aristocrats. Photo: Getty
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How Labour's hostility towards private education could damage the disadvantaged

The Labour party's attack on fee-paying schools is simplistic and harmful.

Here we go again. Labour is attacking private education for causing a “corrosive divide of privilege.” They want to enforce a “School Partnership Standard” to make these evil fee-paying schools channel more resources towards the greater public good. If they don’t comply, then a Labour government will take away their tax reliefs.

We all want to see more children from less advantaged backgrounds gain greater social mobility, but this kind of visceral proxy class-war needs unpicking.

To be fair to Tristram Hunt, he has identified a problem. All too often, children from poorer backgrounds do not get the education or know-how they need. But while his observations may be correct, his solution is wrong-headed, and panders to pseudo class envy. He knows better than most the benefits of a private education, but his proposals will close the door on children who could access the same advantages he enjoyed.

The savings available to independent schools through tax reliefs are more than recouped through not having to educate their pupils in state schools. Let’s not forget that parents of privately-educated students are, in effect, paying twice for education. First, through their taxes and secondly, through school fees.

Fee-paying schools also provide great help to the wider education landscape. Eton College, in my constituency, provides opportunities for many children from modest backgrounds through summer schools; sponsorship of local colleges; shared access to its world-class facilities and a huge number of full bursaries and scholarships for less well-off children.

Labour’s plans would give bureaucrats licence to criticise schools whose schemes do not fit rigid criteria, and nothing kills a sense of public duty quicker than undeserved criticism. Threatening independent schools with financial punishment for political gain will make the situation worse.

Schools who have their tax reliefs withdrawn will raise their fees or close their doors. Many parents will have no choice but to return their children to the state sector, placing an even greater burden on the education budget.

The "corrosive divide" would be replicated at a higher cost to taxpayers by Labour’s approach, because parents who can afford it will simply pay for private tutors to give their kids the edge. This will further entrench the imperfections that Labour say they want to tackle.

Private education is not just for oligarchs and aristocrats, as some would have us believe. While some parents are indeed wealthy, most make huge personal sacrifices to give their children the chance to attend a fee-paying school. Neither are private schools the preserve of the academically elite. Many specifically cater for children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and Asperger’s.

Having grown up in a single-parent household in social housing for much of my childhood, I am determined that we do not allow the circumstances of birth dictate where we end up in life. Blaming fee-paying schools is as simplistic as it is harmful.

I am however optimistic, because there are practical ways in which we can improve social mobility. By allowing the fee-paying sector to grow, we will see a diverse provision of educational services to choose from which will bring down prices. New educational institutions already offer fees close to the current cost of state education, and schools that provide excellent results at affordable prices will continue to attract parents. At the same time we must, of course, continue to push up standards in state schools so that fee-paying schools feel the pressure to deliver even better value-for-money.

And we can open up top-quality education to more youngsters with academic aptitude, regardless of background. Why not significantly increase the number of bursaries and full scholarships for less well-off families?

In the same way that wealthy entrepreneurs have donated large sums of money to academies in areas in which they have a personal connection, philanthropy has a role to play in boosting scholarships and bursaries. The Royal National Children’s Foundation already does excellent work in helping thousands of at-risk children into top boarding schools. This scheme can be expanded further and the criteria widened.

We must remember that education is a public good in its own right. Independent schools must of course continue do their bit to retain charitable status but do we really want institutions that equip children with knowledge and skills to receive no better tax treatment than a commercial firm?

There is much more to do to open up opportunities to disadvantaged children. The expertise of fee-paying schools is a key tool in the fight and it would be disastrous to endanger this progress.

Schools, independent and state-funded, must work together, yet challenge each other, to shape better teaching. We must put prejudice aside and recognise the positive role that fee-paying education can play in creating a rising tide of social mobility that lifts all boats.

Adam Afriyie is Conservative MP for Windsor. He was shadow minister for science and innovation from 2007-10 and now chairs the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST) and the Parliamentary Space Committee

Adam Afriyie is the Conservative MP for Windsor

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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.