Labour's private school heroes

Jonathan Calder looks down with bafflement from the top of the Stiperstones at the Labour Party's at

I shall never understand the Labour view on education. You think they would be proud to have a minister who is the son of an immigrant and who spent the first 11 years of his life in care. But Andrew Adonis (born Andreas - his father was a Greek Cypriot) is a hate figure for many in the party.

Perhaps Labour members are uneasy that his career owes nothing to the state comprehensive system. For Adonis, at the age of 11, was sent to board at an odd relic of Victorian Christian philanthropy: Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire.

On its website (Plymouth is one of the school’s houses) he writes that he:

"Arrived at Plymouth in April 1974 after an extremely unsettled few years in a children's home. It was one of the first times I had seen the English countryside, and the first time in England I had been so far from London. It was also mid-way through the school year. So all in all, it was a shock to the system, and to begin with an unhappy experience.

"But Plymouth and KHS soon came to supply all I lacked in life outside: stability, friends, values and a sense of self-worth and self-belief."

The Dublin journalist Bruce Arnold, who was at Kingham Hill 30 years earlier, described life there as “frugal and austere”. But the photographs that accompany Adonis’s words show the shining faces and shining knees of any prep school of the period.

Yet when you look into it, it turns out that most Labour ministers attended private schools or grammar schools. True the Milibands went to the local comprehensive, but I suspect their home life was very different from that of their classmates. (“Ed misquoted the Grundrisse. Ed misquoted the Grundrisse.”)

David Lammy did go from a poor North London home to Harvard, but he made the journey via an ILEA scholarship to The King’s School Peterborough and its cathedral choir. He is more cloister than street.

More typical of Gordon Brown’s cabinet is the man who forced Adonis out of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and into exile as railways minister: Ed Balls.

Balls’s father Michael, now Professor Emeritus of Medical Cell Biology at Nottingham and admired for his work on alternatives to animal experiments, is also a Labour man. In the 1970s, while a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, he organised the successful campaign against the 11 plus in Norfolk.

So when the family moved to Nottinghamshire, did he send his son to one of the county’s comprehensives?

Did he bunnies. The young Ed Balls attended the private Nottingham High School (current fees £3358 per term.)

Perhaps that is why, when he got to Oxford, Ed joined an all-male drinking club called the Steamers. He recently suffered embarrassment when a photograph from the period surfaced in the newspapers. It showed him dressed in a German officer's uniform and staring at the crotch of a fellow student wearing comedy plastic buttocks

At least the Daily Mail said they were comedy plastic buttocks. Not having been to a public school myself, I feel unqualified to judge.

The sad thing is that Ed Balls is so much more popular with activists than Andrew Adonis. Like I said, I'll never understand the Labour view on education.


I sometimes wonder if history will judge John Major more kindly than his contemporaries did.

Certainly, it is easy to underestimate the acuity of his observation. I remember his tribute to the late President Mitterand: “He made a great contribution to public life, especially in France.”

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England