The grammar school debate is back – but the government must do what's best for all kids

My week in politics, including existential questions, two-tier schools and how Ed Balls beat me to the Strictly ballroom.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

"Hello. Jess Phillips speaking.” “Oh, hello. I was ringing to ask for some help from my MP, Jess Phillips.” “Yes, that’s me. What can I do to help?” “Oh, well, I’m all flustered now it’s actually you. Is it actually you?”

Working in my constituency office during recess causes many an existential crisis, and never more so than when I am answering the phone. To be fair, I am told that on the phone I sound like a man; I have been referred to as “Jeff” or “sir” on more than one occasion.

Apart from having to explain myself to people who cannot believe that I am real, I’m never happier than when I am here. Sitting in my office and not schlepping to Westminster every week is like wearing comfy slippers and eating your favourite home-cooked meal for tea. When I’m in the constituency and not running around to the sound of division bells, I can do some proper work. Not work like I do in Westminster: reading, attending meetings and scrawling notes all over pieces of paper dog-eared by too much time in my bag. In Yardley, I work like normal people in offices up and down the land: dealing with people’s issues, planning local campaigns, doing case reviews and having staff meetings.

 

Recess blues

The rhythm of constituency work does not stop for August. The only difference is the presence of my overexcitable and sometimes overtired children, who may be forced to sit quietly (if only) in the corner at times. Not so chuffed to be on holiday now, are you, boys?

This week, the office is full of children, waiting while their parents get advice or bring me their complaints. Today, I played with the four children of a woman who had come to our office to seek advice from the domestic violence support worker. The children were the best-behaved, most well-mannered kids I’ve met, especially considering they’re living in a hotel and had been sitting for hours in a boring MP’s office.

 

Quiz ego

“Which MP became a lecturer in Greek at the University of Sydney? I’ll give you a clue: he is one of the most famous people to come from my constituency, not that I’m proud about that.”

My weekend was made up of not one, but two Labour Party fundraisers, at which I was a guest of honour. Political quizzes seem to be the bucket-shaking weapon du jour. In the North Warwickshire and Solihull Constituency Labour Parties, I’m allowed to act as quizmaster, in order not to disappoint party members present with my complete ignorance of political trivia.

At the Solihull shindig, a grainy, photocopied picture round – made up of former prime ministers and Labour leaders – reminds me that our party has been better represented by people with beards than by women. I chat and laugh with the members, eat the best goddamn spread I’ve ever seen, and am thankful to the hosts. Just as I’m about to leave (thanks to my increasingly impatient and vocal seven-year-old son), I am dressed down about my lack of commitment to a certain Labour leader with a beard. Beards 2, Women 0.

NB: it was Enoch Powell who was born in the Stechford area of Birmingham Yardley.

 

Taking a dive

I am an Olympics junkie. I managed to time my maternity leave for Athens and then Beijing. I will watch anything, even horse ballet. I’ve been hooked on Rio’s offering, though sleep and work are hampering my viewing regime. My children are, as I type, throwing themselves off the sofa in mock-synchronised-diving riffs. I say their efforts need work, and some water might help.

 

Shedding tiers

This week, I’ve been sizing my son up for his new school uniform, as he is about to start at secondary school. Our nearest secondary is a grammar school, where I went. It is not where my son is going. Nothing gets Tory MPs into the chamber of the House of Commons faster than the suggestion of the opening of new selective schools.

The revolving-door grammar-school policy is back again. Birmingham is one of the rare places where free, selective grammar schools still exist. So I grew up in a place where some kids made it and some kids didn’t. I chatted with my husband about the issue, and the division between us – he went to the local boys’ comp and I went to the fancy school – is still clear in his ire. He resents that we had a swimming pool, for instance, when he didn’t even have any grass, just a yard. (Obviously he never had to dash into the playground during a fire drill and suffer the shame of being in nothing but a swimming costume!)

I jest, of course. He has a point. In Birmingham, the feeling of a two-tier system stays with the majority of kids for life. The debate going forward will no doubt be feral and personal. I just hope that we in Labour can recognise that parents only want what is best for their kids, at the same time as insisting that governments should want what is best for all kids.

 

Two to tango

I have on many occasions joked about my desire to be the first Labour representative on Strictly Come Dancing. I have seen every episode. I can say with real conviction, “That rumba needs more oomph!” and “For God’s sake, man, the Viennese waltz is all about rise and fall – no rise and fall, no point!”

I had long lamented that only Tory politicians had tripped the light fantastic at the Tower Ballroom. Until now. Ed Balls, a man with a national day – “Ed Balls Day”, so called after the time he accidentally and enigmatically tweeted his own name – has beaten me to it. Many will cuss, moan and slag him off for selling out, but when people are already shrieking “Tory neoliberal Blairite sell-out!” at you in the street, you might as well learn to shimmy off in style.

Jess Phillips is the MP for Birmingham Yardley (Labour). Her username on Twitter is: @jessphillips

Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley.

This article appears in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq