The great betrayal. Rebecca Abrams despairs of our educational apartheid

How Not to Be a Hypocrite: school choice for the morally perplexed parent

Adam Swift <em>Routledge

It is hard to overestimate how socially divisive and intellectually muting the issue of school choice has become in recent years among a certain class of parent. Other than war in Iraq, no subject is more likely to ruin a good party or wreck a close friendship. Twenty years ago, parents who leaned to the political left were confident that the state was, if not great, then good enough. Middle-class parents would be able to make up the educational shortfall, and the benefits of learning about real life at a state school would outweigh (more or less) any advantages of intellectual hothousing at a private one.

Those parents' children are now parents themselves and there is little confidence left. In the past decade, private education has established itself as a dark and powerful current in the minds of many who, in their younger days, swore (or even just crossed their fingers and hoped) that they would live and die by state education; slowly but surely, it draws them away from the shores of well-founded conviction and out into the precarious waters of what those on the other side of the political divide like to call "choice", but that those caught in the undertow suspect may be closer to compromise, or even cop-out.

Since my first child started school four years ago, I have lost count of the number of left-wing friends and acquaintances who, apologetically or defiantly, have announced their defection to the private sector. I used to be shocked. Now I'm just resigned. I have got better at decoding those non-committal phrases that open the way to a pricey independent school. "We haven't quite decided." ("We've decided.") "We'll see how he gets on." ("He's down for Charterhouse.") "She seems happy enough." ("We're not.") "Exams aren't everything." ("Not yet.") "He's terribly musical/sporty/artistic." ("There's really no option.")

Feeling betrayed? Me? Absolutely.

My parents were strongly and publicly pro-state education. My stepfather, Brian Jackson, co-wrote one of the sociological bibles for state education in the early Sixties, Education and the Working Class. I imbibed and lived their values, attending comprehensive schools in Yorkshire and Bristol. The first was an ex-grammar, where middle-class children were an anomaly and teenage pregnancies rife. The second was a purpose-built comprehensive run along highly idealistic lines. Academic aspirations were frowned on as elitist. When I told the careers officer that I wanted to apply for Cambridge, his reply was: "I went to Liverpool; is that too good for you?"

Looking back on my schooling, I am dubious about the real-life argument. I saw more poverty than I might have done otherwise, and certainly enjoyed more opportunities for truanting, snogging and watching afternoon TV but, in retrospect, a bit of hothousing would also have been useful, thanks very much. Now, as a parent of school-aged children, I have less faith than I used to in the home input argument. There's barely time or energy for them to practise their spelling, never mind anything else. They get odd scraps - a trip to the theatre here, tennis lessons there - and we, like the homemakers of America, keep on sewing those patches together and hoping they'll add up to something good and wholesome in the long run.

Now, into the ideological and moral murk of school choice arrives Adam Swift. A political philosopher at Balliol College, Oxford, his aim is to clarify the basis of our decision-making by establishing which criteria for choosing one school over another are morally and intellectually defensible, and which are not. "Consistency is a red herring," he asserts. "It's not just a matter of identifying beliefs. We have to evaluate them too. Only then will we know whether - or under what conditions - [parents] are justified in sending their kids to schools they believe shouldn't exist."

Swift could have adopted any number of approaches to this subject, but by sticking to a rigorously philosophical analysis and paring the problem back to first principles, he succeeds in tracking a clear path through the complexities. Put very simply, his argument is as follows: parents are morally entitled to behave partially towards their children, but not if that leads directly to putting other children at a disadvantage. Sending children to private schools rather than the local state schools does, in diverse ways, disadvantage other children and is therefore, in most circumstances, morally unacceptable. However - and this is where the book gets interesting - Swift acknowledges that there are certain conditions under which the decision to opt out of the state sector is both acceptable and consistent with the view that private education should be abolished. What is at issue is not just how to justify school choice, but how to judge different justifications for school choice. Some choices hold more water, morally speaking, than others.

How Not to Be a Hypocrite is a cogent appeal for honesty and scrupulousness in an area of life that is more often characterised by woolly thinking and dodgy self-justification. Reading it, I felt at times as I imagine a small fly might when it realises too late that it has wandered into the web of a very large and clever spider. Swift's web is expertly woven, but his argument relies a little too much on the assumption that most parents, faced with this particular dilemma, have the desire and the capacity to think rationally and systematically about school choice and, having done so, to act rationally and systematically on their conclusions.

Is this really the case? Most parents I know don't want to know if they are hypocrites or not: they just want to get to the far side of an agonising decision and stop thinking about it. What gets left out of Swift's analysis, trenchant and persuasive as it is, are the other motivations that propel people towards decisions - the irrational, the erratic, the impulsive, the fearful.

Before we even get to the point where we can apply the kind of scrupulous critique of our reasoning that Swift advocates, many of us need to delve into altogether murkier territory: our memories of our own schooldays; our subconscious hopes and fears for ourselves and for our children; the unscrutinised moral codes and values we absorbed from our parents, and those we currently live by; how we relate to our adult peer group; how emotionally and socially embedded we are in our community; how secure we feel in the personal and professional choices we've made for ourselves, and are making for our children.

What gets left out, in other words, is a good deal of stuff that really does matter. Personality. History. Feelings. I wanted to know more about how these kinds of factors influence our decision-making on the subject. I would have liked more about the background to the state/private debate. How has thinking about educational choice changed over time? How did we get into this mess in the first place? And I would have liked a whole lot more on practical solutions, too, a manifesto for change that goes beyond deciding what school our own child should attend.

One of Swift's more startling statistics is that if all the schools in England had the same acreage of playing field as one private school, more than half the entire countryside - or 33 million acres - would be set aside for playing field. Couldn't there be an obligation on private schools at least to share their playing fields? Similarly, their art studios, music rooms and libraries? If there is clear evidence, as he claims, that private schools accrue advantages by having the brightest and most affluent children, why is there no obligation for those same schools to contribute financially to the education of all those negatively affected by the absence of such children from the state sector? If the government won't abolish private schools, can it not at least make them earn their charitable status?

Swift has cauterised his subject with methodical ruthlessness and the feel of the blade slicing into flabby thinking is exhilarating. The result is an impassioned, timely plea for moral honesty and social responsibility. It may not be the most accessible book you will read in 2003, but it will definitely be one of the most important.

Rebecca Abrams is working on a novel about Disraeli

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a propaganda war