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Spare me the myths and the whining

Posted on 15 February 2009 | 1:02pm

I stand to be corrected
(and will happily publish such a correction here) but I think I am right in
saying no national newspaper editor sends their children to State schools. This
is worth bearing in mind when you read the relentless diet of negativity
against State schools in our national media. The same applies to hospitals.
Never underestimate the ability of millionaire editors to dress up their own
prejudices and anxieties in stories posing as being worthy, objective and in
the national interest. How marvellous it must be for them to read day after day
that State schools are all failing. Then they can feel so much better about
themselves as the office driver takes the little darlings off to school.

To be frank, I would have far more respect for people who send their kids to
private schools if they said they believed wealth entitled you to buy better
services wherever you can find them, and/or that they would rather their kids
avoided children of asylum seekers, the under educated, the unemployed, benefit
cheats and any others who might risk the de-middleclassification of their

What I can’t stand is all the self-serving mythologising that goes on when
middle class media types share with us their heart-rending agonising over the
decision to go private. There are plenty of examples of people left and right
on the political spectrum who do so. So when the writer Will Self took up space
(and presumably with it a healthy cheque to help with the school fees) from the
pro-private education Evening Standard to say ‘I’m a diehard leftie but my son
is going to a private school
,’ (note ‘is going’ rather than ‘I am sending’) and
then asks his readers to judge whether they believe him to be a hypocrite ….
er, enough said.

To be honest, the so-called left-wing ones make me vomit even
more than the right-wingers. At least the right-wingers never make any claim to
believe in equality of opportunity, unless they’re trying to become Prime
Minister that is. But still, right-wing private school choosers also
 feel, like Self, that they have to tell us all about how their kids
weren’t learning to read properly, and they  got bullied, and how this
doesn’t make them hypocritical, it makes them angry that schools are getting
worse. Well no, schools are not getting worse. They are getting better. There
are more of them. There are more teachers in them. There are higher standards
coming from them. But that does not fit the world view of those who
 devote so much ink in the justification of their own bias and prejudices.

Today’s Sunday Times News Review throws up (to continue with the vomit theme)
the latest in a long line of these ‘why oh why have I had to send my lovely
little boy to a private school?’ pieces
. The article takes up the front cover,
and most of pages 2 and 3. The main illustration is of a healthy blonde boy in
a running vest smiling a victory smile as his chest breaches the tape. The
headline is ‘WHAT’S WRONG WITH WINNING?’ The blurb says ‘home from the front
line, Christina Lamb, the award-winning war correspondent, takes aim at her
son’s state education. What’s all this nonsense about ‘every child has a

I’m glad they used the word nonsense. Because that is what it is. Nonsense. I
suppose the reference to Lamb’s awards and war reporting are designed to make
us feel admiration and respect, plus the sense that British schools are scarier
than Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan. Then we read of how poor award-winning Mummy
Lamb was sitting in a freezing school sharing her son’s nerves as he went off
to sit his private school entrance exams. Then she has a wonderful moment where
she sees a slide show of boys winning things in competitive sport. Because as
readers of most of our national papers must surely know, (if they inhale the
bilge in our papers) there is no competitive sport in state schools.

I won’t
bore you further with her tortuous explanations of how she came to make this
terrible decision for Lourenco (apologies for not being able to put a cedilla
under the c, my computer is clearly not as advanced as the ones at the Sunday Times) but
suffice to say it includes discarded needles, sexual abuse, excrement, death
threats, a whack at Tony Blair and a ‘mwah’ for Barack Obama, a move from
Islington to Richmond, children who were rude and boorish at parties, her son
seemingly forgetting who Jesus was blahdiblahdiblah, I was losing the will to
live by then. But the big thing – hence the big headline – seemed to be about
sport, wrapped around with the kind of rubbish we’ve been hearing from Chris
about ‘the state promotion of mediocrity’ for years. And oh, who is
that on page 3, writing a piece in support of brave award-winning Mummy Lamb.
It’s Chrissy!!!

I wonder if the Sunday Times would take a piece on my experience of inner city
State schools. We have three children. All three went to the local State
primary school in Camden, North London. When we had a poor head teacher, and a
poor Ofsted report, parents got involved to such an extent the head departed
(to run a private school by the way). The current head is superb. So, despite
facing all the problems and pressures of inner city London, is the school as a
whole. Our two sons in particular are sports-mad. They played competitive
football thanks to the school caretaker, a teacher and parents, myself
included, starting a football club. All three have also gone to local State
comprehensives. One has gone to Oxford and will graduate this year. One has
gone to Manchester. Our daughter is still at school. Along the way they have
collected a drawerful of medals from sporting events. Our eldest, supported and
encouraged by the school, ran in national championships for several years.

I do not pretend that any State school is perfect, or that all State schools
are good. But they are far, far better than the national media portrays them,
and that is because the coverage is so much driven by the personal choices
leading journalists make, not by the reality of the schools the bulk of their
readers use.

  • Marcus Dillistone

    I had an accident in Austria requiring immediate surgery: Fantastic clinic, etc., but we sat and waited & waited whilst the insurance ‘teams’ approved the claim. It was – frankly – unnerving, and dare I say ‘creepy’. My point is that we take freely available health and education too much for granted in the UK.

    Schools reflect the communities they serve by and large, and too many parents expect the school to take responsibility for their child’s upbringing. This is as true in the private system, where neglected kids are driven in by their Eastern European nannies.

    Parents must get involved in their children and their child’s education, because wherever they do, children flourish. One can’t and shouldn’t deny that small class sizes help – that’s like trying to defy the laws of physics.

    One key issue requiring attention is the control of ill-behaved & disruptive children because they steal valuable learning time from the majority – it’s as true in the private system, but very well hidden.

    As for the editors you mention; the newspaper trade is dying, no surer sign that they’re out of touch. Printed newspapers can’t compete – news wise – and one would never be started now. They will become financially non-viable, if they aren’t already.

  • Paul Walker

    There isn’t much for me to say; you’ve nailed it AC.

  • Alina Palimaru

    My response was going to be exactly what Marcus Dillistone wrote. I completely agree with everything MD wrote! I would like to take some of those whiners and bring them to experience an inner city public school in a run-down urban area in the U.S. or to wait in the emergency room at a hospital here (probably for 7 hours even for cases of appendicitis!). This past Friday afternoon I had a near-death experience when a bunch of kids from an inner-city school in Washington, D.C. got into a fight in the Metro car I was riding and one was about pull out a gun. So start appreciating the goods and services provided by the British government at a pretty decent quality and price!!

    Alastair, well done with your involvement in your kids’ schools. Unfortunately, it seems that more and more people are seeking expedient solutions to complex problems, so instead of investing time and effort to have a bad teacher sacked or to start a school program, parents will take out their check-book for a private school, thinking that will take care of everything. This is wrong on two counts: first, just because you pay at a private school doesn’t mean your kid is getting higher quality in return; second, it has an aggregate effect on national education, inasmuch as it will lead to financial-based school segregation, whith public schools providing services exclusively to poor and immigrant children. As the precedents set by the United States indicate, this is horrible!

  • Tania Ziegler

    The thing is, ‘State schools serving communities brilliantly’ just doesn’t cut it as a headline for these editors does it? As a teacher and parent who sent all 3 children to state schools, it is good to see the system defended by the likes of you Mr Campbell. Now, can we please get rid of league tables and dreadful Academies?

  • mat roberts

    Great blog. Could not agree more. State schools are not all good but many are excellent. Anybody who has access to good or potentially good state schools would be mad (probably an RBS/HBOS banker) to waste their money on paying. If your local state school is not good, as a parent you will be able to change it if you get involved. If you are paying the only option is to move schools as most fee paying schools are not genuinely responsive to their customers. This is what we offer buy it or go else where is the normal response.

    Great blog.

  • Barbara Cannon

    I could not agree with you more. I have stopped reading sunday newspapers and there ‘reviews’. Frankly, like bankers, the folk who write for these newspapers do not live in the real world. Who the hell do they think they are? How do they square this with the unprecedented investment in state education and with the rise in young people leaving school armed with good qualifications and the army of them that take part in further and higher education.

    You are quite right to identify the urban myths that the newpaper world creates and which are also perpetuated by the Conservative Party and the like.

  • Samantha Dixon

    Here in Cheshire we’ve got fantastic state schools and our kids are flourishing in them. The only reason that anyone round here could have for sending their children to a private school is ideological ie the belief that if you can afford to pay for something expensive it is inherently better. To offer any other excuse is dishonest. Excellent blog – couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Caroline Hett

    Only 7% of the UK population receive an independent education. Of the top 100 journalists in 2006, 54% were independently educated, in 1986 49% ot the top 100 journalists were independently educated. These figures come from the Sutton Trust in this report:
    And the Sutton Trust have found disproportionate influence and power to the inependently educated in other occupations too. Their website is very very good.

    So, why is this? Why do 7% of the population have so much influence? Is it because state schools are really very good and children go on to achieve all they should?

    I don’t understand why proponents of state schools get so upset about people who spend their money on education. To me it is a clean and honest transaction. Far more honest than buying a house in the catchment for the good school or pretending that you live at your parents’ house. Or, ugh, the lowest of the low, feigning faith in order to colonise a faith school with a load of other amoral wankers. An independent school place does not deprive the boy on the council estate, on the very edge of the catchment. It does not deprive a child of parents with genuine faith.

    I have always liked Will Self.

  • thomaswright

    No one complains if someone uses their wages to buy a posh car. The council estate near me has many Lexuses and other 4x4s.

    But if some dares to spend their money on an education for their children they are condemned.

    Why is this?

    P.S. having been born in damp terraced house in Salford in the 1950s I don’t have any middle class vowels.

  • Alina Palimaru

    To Thomaswright

    Interesting comparison with not complaining about cars. However, you missed Alastair’s point. He did acknowledge a parent’s right to send their children wherever they think fit for education. What he argued against was the empty rhetoric that parents resort to in order to justify their decision. In addition, he submitted a cogent assessment of how poorly the media handle the subject. So just make sure you read carefully and not misrepresent his views or intent.

    Here’s what he wrote:
    “I would have far more respect for people who send their kids to private schools if they said they believed wealth entitled you to buy better services wherever you can find them… What I can’t stand is all the self-serving mythologising that goes on when middle class media types share with us their heart-rending agonising over the decision to go private.”

    My Best,

  • alfred longbottom


    “no national newspaper editor sends their children to State schools. This is worth bearing in mind when you read the relentless diet of negativity against State schools in our national media.”

    I will bear it in mind because it shows the extent to which the state sector has alienated potential clients because of the sub standard service it provides. If anything this sbe seen as a challenge for the state to pick up its game and work harder to provide a better service. But no. You’d rather go on another defensive rant about yet another of Labour’s sacred cows that you and your labour colleagues feel sbe held above criticism. Pardon me if I don’t join you on such an infnatile exercise.

  • Mark Martin

    Both my children are products of the state school system. I am as proud of them as I am of the schools they attend/attended.
    I think the Editors still have some prejudices based on watching “Kes”.

  • oldandrew

    I have no children to send to private schools.

    I have no prejudice against state schools.

    I have no hidden ideological agenda opposed to state schools or to the Government: I am a Labour Party member/activist and a supporter of comprehensive education and I attended a bog standard comprehensive school myself.

    But I don’t doubt for a second that the newspaper accounts of low aspirations, dumbed-down qualifications, mixed-ability teaching and awful behaviour in our schools are 100% true.

    How do I know this?

    Because I am a teacher. I see it every day of my working life. It makes me so angry, but not as angry as seeing people who should care about the systematic betrayal of working class children telling me that it’s not happening.

    Teaching blog at

  • Simon Leonard

    Why hasn’t anyone picked up on the way in which some Tory commentators are spinning Jade Goody’s remarks about wanting her children to be privately educated as a daming indictment of Labour.

    Jade was born in 1980 and so would have been educated entirely under a Conservative government. Any negative impressions she has of state schools (however misguided they may be) must stem from that period.

    Not only is it pathetic for Tories to be using the remarks of a dying woman for political gain, their point isn’t even valid.

    Seriously Alastair, get back in the game at least until the next election, this kind of rubbish surely wouldn’t have got past you?

  • simone rose

    I sent my children to the local primary and secondary schools in London, they have both done well and turned into well adjusted adults, and I think they both enjoyed their time at school as much as one can, given that adolescence can be a very hard time.
    This is not to say I chose the schools, most of us dont have a choice and my income did not stretch to private anything.
    Of my siblings, one sent her only child to private school in London, relentless bullying, and the other who lived in a selective area (Kent) had one child who passed for grammar school and went to University, and the other two went to the “comperehensive”, which was poor and had minimal GCSE results, but the children were “well behaved”.
    People send their children to private school
    1. Because the can afford it
    2. To secure social advantage
    Any other rationalisation is just that.