Journalism

Private Schools

July 10th, 2003

July 8th

This week, my godchild Eleanor finishes her three years pre-prep at St Paul’s Cathedral School, ready to start at City of London School for Girls in September.
When she was born, I promised to pay for her education until she is 21. Her mother is my closest friend, I have no children of my own, and I can afford it. It gives my friend and her husband extra money for their second child, and it has meant that they can stay in the part of London they like, without having to move for the sake of that increasingly rare find; a good state school.

I don’t feel guilty about paying for Eleanor because I am not middle class.

Why all the hand-wringing, the apologies, the elaborate explanations? These parents privilege their children in all sorts of ways – clothes, treats, holidays, time, but agonise over educating them. Nobody worries that the kids from the Council estate aren’t going ski-ing this year, at least not enough to cancel the trip – but ask parents about schools, and you unleash years in therapy.

The middle classes have been utterly brain-washed by Labour, new and old, into believing that sending their kids to a decent school is directly responsible for the breakdown of the State system.

The truth is that Governments for the past thirty years have used education as a blackboard for their own particular ideologies – whether wrecking the grammar schools or snatching the milk. The result is an under-funded, chaotic mess, that fails children at every level. None of us should be guilty about saving our own kids where we can – all of us should be furious that we have to.

In the real world, we can spend our money as we like, in the fantasy world of government spending, our money has no positive power – all we can do is exercise negative power and opt out of the system. Don’t feel guilty about that – it’s not your fault. Our fault is that we put up with it. What we need is not incremental improvement, but a revolution in education.

Everybody knows that children who enjoy school go on to be happier and more productive adults. Investment in education – in the early life of every human being – pays off massively later down the line. Health costs and social costs go down, tax receipts go up.

Roughly £2500 per child per year is spent on education. Average private school fees are three times that amount. If we doubled our per capita spending, and made interim investments in libraries, language labs and computer stations, we could change Britain in twenty years.

Imagine it – good schools, small classes, motivated teachers, kids who want to learn.

How could we double spending on schools?

We could start by abandoning the fetish of higher education, where armies of illiterate innumerate kids are signed onto courses that are as useless as they are.
Why are the kids useless? They haven’t been taught properly in school. Why haven’t they been taught properly in school? No money. So why do we insist on university targets when we aren’t able to educate all children at a basic level?
I know plenty of people working in universities, and they are saying the same thing; kids arrive with low-grade basic skills and no interest in thinking for themselves. But they are numbers and numbers meet targets.

I would gladly pay more tax to fund schools, but I would not pay more tax simply to meet pointless targets, or to go on increasing the bewildering load of paperwork dumped on teachers by Civil Servants. Good teachers want to teach; they do not want to fill in forms.

When Government says there is no more money, we must insist that education take priority over everything else – including Tony Blair’s vanity projects like overhauling the Constitution, and his war-mongering delusions of international power.

Why can we afford to flatten Iraq, when we can’t afford to educate our own children?

I was a working class grammar school girl who went to Oxford at a time when the children of factory workers did not. I believe in the value of a broad education – all the things this government loves to cut out – except for their own kids, of course. Music, drama, sport, languages, are not luxuries. Kids need them, because art and culture shapes us as people. Education is an imaginative journey. That’s how teachers want to teach, that’s how kids learn best.

The only time I have ever seen Eleanor bored at school was when the class had to be forcibly prepared for SATS.

Britain can afford good schools. Use the lottery, tax businesses that make money out of kids, like Macdonalds and Disney. If the French film industry can use a ticket levy to plough money back into its movies, why can’t we have an education levy on hamburgers and Harry Potter?

Let’s agree that education is the number one priority and use targeted taxation. So what if Government hates it? It’s our money, our schools, our kids. Don’t be guilty – fight for change.