The Two Types of Guardian Journalism About Where to Send your Kids to School

July 31, 2012


Type 1: Unbelievable Hypocrisy

If you had told me twenty years ago that’d I’d send my children to a private school then I wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, having gone to a top public school myself, and as an activist in the Socialist Workers Party (Oxford University branch), I thought that private schools were the cause of all Britain’s social problems and that they represented everything I hated about this country and my life. I also believed that England’s comprehensives were the finest, most noble institutions to have ever been created and that anyone who did not agree must have been influenced by the Daily Mail, the Tory Party and a virulent hatred of the poor. However, since Caitlyn and Jeremy were born I have had time to reflect. I now realise that some of my local schools aren’t as good as they should be. Class sizes in them are much too big. Some of the other children in them are funny-looking. Also, having visited my GP’s surgery 337 times this year, they have agreed that Jeremy has Special Needs and I don’t believe that the local state school can meet those needs as well as the small class sizes and dedicated teaching staff at Eton. Some may accuse me of hypocrisy but actually I just care about my children. Besides, there’s no difference between what I am doing and moving into the catchment area of a good comprehensive, converting to Anglicanism, and spending £30,000 on suing the local authority which is what most of my friends have done. I am still really left wing and radical. Just look at what I wrote last week about how I hate the royal family. I’m really radical.

Type 2: Patronising Self-Righteousness

Nobody is more evil than somebody who sends their child to a private school. I went to a top public school myself and it never did me any good, except for getting me into Oxbridge and a career in the media where I earn a six figure salary. I have lost count of all the people at my dinner parties, who said to me:

“You aren’t going to send Caitlyn and Jeremy to a state school are you? They’ll mix with the wrong sort. And would you mind passing me some more humus?”

However, after visiting the brand new building of the local academy, and checking my bank balance, I decided that it would be in society’s best interest for Caitlyn and Jeremy to go to their local state school. No, no, don’t thank me. It’s not the truly selfless, altruistic example of personal heroism it looks like. Actually it’s in Caitlyn and Jeremy’s best interest. After all, they are so gifted they don’t actually need all those small classes and extra tuition we could have paid for. What going to a state school will give them is the opportunity to make friends from a wide variety of backgrounds, including poor people. Poor people are wonderful and I believe that to the bottom of my heart even though I have never actually met a poor person. Also the teachers are wonderfully committed in my local state school. If you don’t send your child to the local comprehensive then you must hate poor people and teachers. And you’re probably a racist too. Not like me. If everyone did what I have done all the social divisions in this country would simply melt away. In fact we should make everyone do this. Otherwise it’s not fair.

What you won’t see in the Guardian is this:

I didn’t go to a private school and I can’t afford to send my kids to a private school. I hope the local state school is good enough. I know that most state comprehensives aren’t, and except for a few ideologues, most people who can afford to avoid them, or can work the system to avoid them, do so. What would be a radical left-wing policy would be to work on improving state schools so that they are good enough for even the most anxious, middle class parent to use without worrying. But that is a difficult policy to argue for in the pages of the Guardian, and not because of the cost, but because it would involve challenging some deeply held views of the middle class left. It would challenge the belief that children are natural saints whose bad behaviour only results from false consciousness created by capitalism, social problems and insufficiently compassionate teachers. It would challenge the belief that children learn best through play, having fun or being preached at about the importance of tolerance. It would challenge the belief that all we need to do is claim to care a lot, and have the most politically acceptable structures, and everything will sort itself out without a lot of effort or any change in attitude on the part of everybody with power and influence over education. Additionally, it would involve admitting that the question of where the upper middle class choose to send their children is an irrelevant distraction to the actual issue of what happens to the majority of our children in the majority of our schools.



  1. Brilliant. Try to get the Guardian to publish it and send a copy to Fiona Millar.

  2. Now what was the name of that Labour MP who sent her kids to private school……? mmmm…

  3. Rob, it is Diane Abbott.. and she sent him to the school I used to teach in. And given her other options were in Hackney, and the fact that she could afford to, she would have been not just foolish but neglectful not to have sent him there.

    Your comment, “work on improving state schools so that they are good enough for even the most anxious, middle class parent to use without worrying” is something I’ve been arguing ever since I left full time teaching.

    The huge barrier to achieving this, is that so many of the figures who have worked their way through the state system to influential or strategic roles, refuse to accept the reality that they have everything to learn from their private sector counterparts. At the same time, they are often eaten up by a professional envy which is palpable. I’ve come across it again and again ever since I left working in private education and began working on school improvement projects in the state sector.

    If they could show just a little humility and accept that private schools in the UK are some of the best in the world, that they are indeed sought out by parents all over the world because of this, then perhaps the pupils (and teachers) in state schools they manage might benefit.

    • Joe,
      I wouldn’t argue with you at all about what you have just said- though I would say that whilst Abbot avoided being foolish or neglectful…. she didn’t avoid being hypocritical.

      Hence the press, party and public reaction at the time.

      • Abbott will never live it down because she had past form for criticising others for their school choices. She was among those who criticised Tony Blair in the mid-90s for sending his children to the wrong type of comprehensive. Something which seems particularly absurd when you consider he was the first British prime minister to send his kids to a state secondary school.

        • Blair is the other type of hypocrite ; claiming to be using the state system while arranging for their children to attend one of the best state schools – they didn’t attend his local comprehensive.

          If MPs had to attend a low achieving state school as is it might actually cause the real problems to be addressed.

          • I suggest you check that. I’m fairly certain that the Blairs sent their kids to a comprehensive right near Downing Street. Not sure there are any others significantly nearer, certainly not if their wish to send their children to a Catholic school is respect. Their critics (like Diane Abbott) invented all sorts of “principles” that this contravened, but none of them were ones that he, or any other parent, could reasonably be expected to hold.

            • Well I can confirm that the eldest boys went to the London Oratory, a pan London Catholic comprehensive school and the girl went to the Sacred Heart in Hammersmith, also a catholic comprehensive. Leo attends the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial school, another Catholic comprehensive. He was the first Prime Minister to educate his children through the state system.

            • Which isn’t the same LEA let alone the nearest school.

              Euan Blair was born in 1984, which means he was 12/13 in 1997. When he went to the Oratory the Blairs were living in Islington.

              Religion is one of the many ways that covert selection occurs, of course, (Kylie and Darren Crapp not being a regular churchgoer of course), along with house prices. The Oratory had selection interviews till 2006, yet another method of filtering out tough kids). And it’s not a “state school” anyway, it opted out.

              But no, he’s not playing the system at all.

            • I think you’ll find that people knew Blair would be moving to Downing Street several years before he actually did in 1997.

              As for the rest, it really doesn’t matter if you think that going to a Catholic school or a grant maintained school is ideologically impure. For an accusation of hypocrisy to make sense you’d need to demonstrate that this was something Blair had believed or proclaimed.

            • Paul, The London Oratory is a state school. Continuing to say it isn’t doesn’t make it so. The correlation between Catholicism and wealth is not high. Like the other two schools attended by the Blair children, the Oratory has its a high proportion of of poor children from tough estates. The discipline of regular church going is available to everyone. You do not have to have any money at all. I was delighted that the Blairs ignored the totalitarian approach of some of their advisers and sent their children to such a splendid school. Why should you (or anyone) presume to tell them how to educate their children? Good for them.

  4. I have just read Liam Tamar’s book ‘Making the Island,’ and there’s a brilliantly executed excruciating scene where a wealthy upper class couple get all self-righteous about sending their child to private school, and say they wouldn’t if the state schools were good enough. And the poor, struggling secondary teacher who’s an old friend is somehow seen as part of the problem.

  5. Sounds like yet another London centric comment. We could have easily afforded to send our kids to private schools here in Cheshire but in our area the comps are perfectly sound and there’s a choice so it just wasn’t necessary. I know there are similar situations elsewhere in the country but I don’t know what proportion of the whole such comps represent. We make a big play of the excellence of some of our private schools but as an H.M.I. who inspected both sectors once told me: “Some of the best schools in the UK are in the private sector as some of the very worst”. Our patchy education system doesn’t lend itself to the generalisations so beloved of media professionals.

    • Im not sure middle class parents are all that bothered about OFSTED or HMI reports- they are more concerned with results and the type of peers their children are exposed to.

      If the results go downhill then I assume the private school loses trade and goes bankrupt?

    • Whilst some private schools aren’t very good I seriously doubt they come anywhere near the worst of the state sector.

  6. I take the earlier point of the argument about comps being partly London centric. May I also just mention Hull and Rotherham? I would never underestimate the difficult job faced by large comps in areas of poverty and transient populations. However, my local comp in West London has only once got its GCSE results above 50% in the last 40 years. If it was a private school, the Governors might have been forced to consider alternatives to their current policies, mixed ability classes, poor discipline around behaviour and attendence, no focus on sport or practical subjects like cookery. Quite recently I asked a Governor who had held her position for 15 years if she ever felt a need to change their approach. I noted she was quite relaxed about the poor results and reminded me that pupils could ‘catch up later’ after they left the school. .

  7. Helen,
    Quite right and schools in poor areas that do get great results dont get them by accident- they had to work for them e.g. Wilshaw’s old school.

  8. I would have said this was a little unfair until that spectacular article a couple of weeks ago by Janet Murray. Now it appears that you’re spot on.

  9. The third part is much weaker: what about the point that a) private schools are highly variable b) it really is fundamentally unfair that you can buy a better education for your kids – because education is not a commodity like potatoes and c) that ‘free schools’ are an enormous distraction from the problem of producing state schools that actually work for kids – and which, frankly, quite a lot of the Left do care about. Before shouting ‘hypocrisy’, get your bloody facts straight.

    • Tom, I think you are missing the point. Education is partly a commodity, which is why parents with the necessary resources often exercise their power to choose. The standard argument from the left around here is that the local schools would improve if such power was removed from parents and everyone was forced to send their kids to the nearest school.

      Free schools (and we now have one) are set up in areas where parents are dissatisfied with the local provision, but do not have the purchasing power to buy their own education. While the local comp retains its right to carry on producing disgraceful results year after year, the Free school is oversubscribed by a factor of nine to one.

      I’d like to think that the Local Authority is taking notice of the eagerness of parents for another style of school, but as long their their representation on the governing body of the local comp. remain so complacent, I doubt we will see much change.

      f course there are some poor private schools. The law of standard distribution applies. The point is that parents can choose to spend their money elsewhere if they wish.

    • I’m trying to work out if you are actually making an argument here or just trying to convince yourself of some story about who are the goodies and baddies. a) and c) are completely irrelevant. I agree with b) that it is utterly unfair that you can buy a better education for your kids than that provided by the state, I just think that what’s unfair about it is the low quality of state education. For me the issue is about what happens to the majority, not an argument between the wealthy minority about where their kids should go. And that’s the problem. The existence of something referred to (by middle class people of all stripes) as “the Left” but actually being just a group of middle class people talking to each other about themselves with no experience of, or interest in, the realities faced by ordinary people.

      • Probably the latter.

        I think it is about scapegoating. The disconnected “Left” want private schools to be their scapegoat for the failings of education (hence the belief that if they were all shut down education in the state schools would massively improve) because they are unable to admit that the state system is in a mess in many schools and that it is largely down to them – it is impossible to fix a problem if you do not acknowledge it exists.

        What would actually happen if private education was banned is one of three things – firstly the private schools would set up in another country as residentials, secondly home schooling would become more organised (e.g. operating as small cooperatives with qualified staff rather than ad hoc), but primarily parents would manipulate the housing system so they got into the better quality comprehensives.

        Many of those who rant about private schools and their unfairness do this now – they live in the catchment area for the decent state schools. Ask them what they would think if they lived in the catchment of a sink school and there is no response.

        I have ‘bought an education’ for my children. Both were due to attend a school that on the face of it (results) wasn’t too bad, but in reality was disintegrating. It is massively improved now (new HT in last 18 months). My daughter now attends sixth form at another local high school. If they had been able to go there in the first place then it is unlikely they would have been privately educated at secondary level but I had the ‘choice’ of the disintegrating school or – nothing – other than homeschooling or private education.

  10. Tom,
    Given that several governments have tried to make comprehensives work for many decades and pretty much failed it seems reasonable to allow different models to have a go.

    And as others have already explained if you banned private schools you would simply create a post code system of selection which would be private schools in all but name anyway.

    Unless of course you bring in legislation to remove the right of moving house and/or remove the right of parents to remove their children from schools they do not like.

    (Is anyone seriously suggesting this draconian option? No? Well then stop banging on about the ‘demonic’ private sector then)

    Lets concentrate on making state schools better full stop. It can be done: others have already done so in difficult circumstances and it didn’t take huge cash injection or new buildings. Then you take away the attraction of private schools.


    1. Uniform
    2. Compulsory HW
    3. Detentions at lunch and after school
    4. Competition is not a dirty word
    5. Misbehaviour is
    6. Limited (ie not infinite) chances for badly behaved kids who hurt others
    7. 3 exclusions = expulsion
    8. 2 expulsions = EBD or borstal depending on conduct and panels decision
    9. Exam based system that proves intellectual rigour and competence (fair enough Gove has made improvements there)
    10. Stop pandering to stroppy, feckless parents
    11. Staff have to follow school policy- if not- pack your bags. You dont want to issue detentions as its ‘not your bag’?- fine, go and undermine colleagues somewhere else….
    12. Have SMART targets for all kids and stop excusing and de-skilling SEN kids. Understand and support yes!, excuse and pander no!
    13. Ensure that direct instruction, silent work, expert tuition are REGULAR features of children’s diet from Y2-Y13
    14. Play, group work, doing the odd poster etc have their place but should be used sparingly.
    15. Regular testing done throughout the year in all years.
    16. Loads of extra curricular enrichment.
    17. Resist non peer reviewed faddish initiatives.

    Cant be that difficult…..

    • “12. Have SMART targets for all kids and stop excusing and de-skilling SEN kids. Understand and support yes!, excuse and pander no!”

      I would suggest redefining (back) SEN so it is restricted to the obvious SENs (autism, PMLD, severe EBD) and stop classifying any child who is slightly odd or who misbehaves or who is simply lazy or dense as “SEN”.

      Within that framework, yes. I used to work with EBDs and we got many of them through GCSEs – not that brilliant compared to High Schools perhaps but they got them. Many EBD schools don’t bother because it is easier to assume they can’t do it and not try. They are badly behaved not stupid.

  11. “As for the rest, it really doesn’t matter if you think that going to a Catholic school or a grant maintained school is ideologically impure. For an accusation of hypocrisy to make sense you’d need to demonstrate that this was something Blair had believed or proclaimed”

    I am not bothered by ideological purity or otherwise. I am simply observing that religious schools use it as a form of selection.

  12. Helen: Moved here because in my browser after a discussion gets to about four replies on the blog it becomes unreadable :)

    “The London Oratory is a state school. Continuing to say it isn’t doesn’t make it so.”

    It opted out of state control ; it is grant maintained. It selects by interview and religious belief. It’s hardly typical.



    “The correlation between Catholicism and wealth is not high”

    No, but it is a highly effective way of removing difficult pupils by default. Most of the most difficult children are not church goers.

    “Like the other two schools attended by the Blair children, the Oratory has its a high proportion of of poor children from tough estates.”

    Same mistake. Committed Catholics are not going to be the don’t give a cr*p underclass by and large, are they ?

    This also ignores the selection aspect. There are gems on tough estates as well. There are committed parents on tough estates. The selection process allows them to cherrypick and then say ‘oh we’re taking pupils from the poor estates’.

    “The discipline of regular church going is available to everyone.”

    Catholic school places selected by interview are not, and the point is irrelevant anyway.

    Quantum Physics is available to everyone as well, but Darren Grott isn’t going to study it, is he ?

    Combined with things such as the ‘selection interview’ and references from clergy, it is trivial to exclude difficult children from the school, and looking at the exam results, they do.

    This is not about *money*. But you know that, which is why you keep making the point as if it means something.

    “You do not have to have any money at all.”

    Repeating the same irrelevant argument does not make it true. It’s not about money. It’s about covert and overt selection.

    “I was delighted that the Blairs ignored the totalitarian approach of some of their advisers and sent their children to such a splendid school. Why should you (or anyone) presume to tell them how to educate their children? Good for them”

    Because they took an option that isn’t available to anyone else – to attend what is – via at least two entirely seperate routes – a selective school.

    If I don’t like my state school I have to either pretend to believe in sky fairies or pay for it. And as you are probably well aware there is a great deal of pretending when it comes to church school intakes, which allows them to select by ability.

    Select by funded private education ; select by interview ; select by religion excluding underclass – it makes no real difference.

    • Once again,you are missing the point of this very funny and disturbingly accurate satire on education policy in this country. You belong to an over vocal group who are stupidly rude to anyone who dares to challenge the comprehensive model. For all that the majority Guardian journalists never went near a comprehensive, nor sent their children to one, you guys are over represented in that paper. Hence, the need for another forum.

      You disagree with selection, but should everyone else? The writer of this and other pieces on the blog points out that any discussion on education is hijacked by someone who wants to complain about Tony Blair’s choices or that Catholic schools exist at all. Can I ask you to kindly re read the original article and move on?

      • I didn’t. I mentioned it once and then all the Catholics who want special treatment for their sky fairy belief jumped on me.

        And whilst I agree with some of what you say, the Oratory is laughably obviously a selective school. Your sole “argument” is that ‘people from poor estate can attend’ – only if they are Catholics mind. This doesn’t stop the school being selective.

        Selecting on any religion, or indeed almost anything eliminates the underclass dross that OA writes so eloquently about largely and ofen entirely. You would get the same thing if you set up a school for staunch atheists.

        I have zero problem with Catholic schools. However, Catholics should pay for them. As should Jews, CofE, Atheists and anyone else who wants an education which suits their own personal agenda.

        Your comments about ‘hijacking’ are an attempt to silence discussion that you personally do not like.

        The blog topic is ‘hypocrisy in school choice’ – those who avoid the mess that is many state schools but insist on it for those who cannot pay or select by another manner.

        What you want to do is to define the hypocrisy so selection by ability (disguised as religious selection) is not in this area because of your own personal beliefs.

        Blair did not send his child to the local state school – he picked a selective one a long way away (and you cannot, incidentally, get your child into another school by saying you’ll have a job in that area in two years time either. Try it if you don’t believe me. Your LA will laugh at you).

        • Its a contentious issue- I’m agnostic myself but I think people have the right to choose religious schools for their kids if they wish.

          I dont think they should be made to pay for them- as that would mean poorer families would absolutely be excluded from being able to choose a religious education for their the child. That seems wrong to me- even those who ‘believe in fairies’ pay their taxies….

          I understand you say its ‘effectively selection’ but Im not quite sure thats right. Plenty of catholic schools are very tough indeed and have ‘fail’ inspections. A good school, secular or religious will have middle class parents tricking the system to get their kids in- theres no difference there.

          There are enough state-secular, private and state-religious schools to go around. What we need to do is improve the quality of the 1st and 3rd of these- as they are tax payer funded.

          And the selection procedures vary from school to school and if undersubscribed have to take non religious students.

          In terms of Blair, I accept you have a partial point in that he had more choice than the average parent but nonetheless it was a non selective state school by definition.

          But yes, not all non selective state schools are created equal- as it were.

          Finally the class distinctions we are using here- they are too blunt. Some middle class parents may be aspirational but they can be a pain the arse- they undermine the school and spoil their brat. They are often the most annoying and potentially harmful of parents as they are tenacious and will write malicious complaints to all and sundry.

          Whereas some working class parents are also aspirational but simply trust the staff- they havent got a ‘better than the teacher snideness’.

          Some parents of both classes can be a delight- some from both can be a nightmare. And sometimes the kids can be nothing like their parents- but some can be carbon copies.

          The thing about the scope for improvement is that it need’nt be a cost/tax issue. The improvements that OA, I and others have suggested don’t cost too much- so it needn’t be tied to a debate about our diverse school ‘market’.

          Its all about ethos- insist the staff create an ethos and give them the absolute right and powers to maintain it and dont let any parent or child, whatever their class or religion, ruin it for the rest.

          • I take your point. My personal view is that religious choice is not a special case. If you are state funded then you are a state school for everyone offering as close to the same standard as is possible.

            Yes, a poorer Catholic cannot choose a school that they may prefer, but a poorer Atheist, Agnostic or anything else cannot currently choose such either.

            I take your point about selection, too. However, the reality is that many schools are selective, most obviously the London Oratory (or was until recently anyway). Not only by religion but by interview and other methods of keeping tougher children out.

            I agree that we need to improve the standards of all schools. Hoewever, the main “problem” – as I see it anyway – is the schools that have a significant number of disenchanted, challenging, children – such as this blog has described countless times before.

            Both Private schools and Religious ones avoid these children – the parents cannot afford the latter, and the family will not pass the ‘religion’ test very likely (and even if they do they won’t pass the interview test if there is one).

            Any school can improve if you can filter out the most badly behaved children. This (I think) is behind a lot of superheads – their ‘superness’ is partly related to exclusion carte-blanche.

            I don’t agree that Blair’s school is non-selective. It very clearly is, even though it may pretend not to be. Though I don’t think it really does as it went to court to preserve the right to select. The Oratory would probably pretend it is selecting purely by religious choice, but that really is not defensible.

            I agree that middle class parents can be bad in a different way. I would hazard a guess though that there is an large correlation between the most difficult students and challenging/underclass family backgrounds.

            There are working class (does this even exist any more) parents who support schools – when I started 25 years ago this was the norm, even with the most difficult children – but now there is a culture of ‘who cares about school/teachers’ prominent and the parents will actively take the pupils side against the teachers, sometimes almost irrespective of the circumstances.

            I haven’t read your specific ideas but I agree with most of what OA writes. I’m not quite sure myself what the solutions are – unpicking 20 years of nonsense is hard work – but he does accurately identify the problems, which is 90% of the battle.

            It also demonstrates why (regrettably) OA will never be put in charge of the DfES (or anyone who think as he does) ; the number of vested interests that popup to challenge his view of the world is disheartening.

            Whether they are ignorant (i.e. they have only worked in ‘nice’ schools and do not realise how difficult many schools are) or simply don’t care I do not know.

            The classic example is the iPad threads. It is not that these things are not useful in theory, but the way that questions about robustness, theft, distraction are ignored either by shouts of “luddite” or “useless teacher” is depressing.

            I agree with him, and I have desks full of electronic gadgetry. If I’m a luddite I must be a very odd one :)

      • “You disagree with selection, but should everyone else? ”

        Actually as my children attended private school and I went to a Grammar school it’s unlikely that i do ; you’ve just made this up.

        I do object to hypocrisy though, and people who play the line drawing game.

        • Paul

          I think you must be unwell. Your rather verbose remarks on this forum refer constantly to selection as though it were a crime.

          I think you referring to God as ‘a sky fairy’ is rude and disrespectful.

          You still haven’t read the original piece carefully enough to comment accurately.

          Go away


          • Ah, the charm of the religious zealot, and the ever complex level of discourse.

            I refer you to Rob’s post for an example of how to disagree and argue in a coherent fashion.

            As I pointed out previously, as I attended a selective school and both children went private I am unlikely to be opposed to selection.

            I am however, not that keen on hypocrisy.

            The point of the post is hypocrisy between those who demand for others what they arrange for their children to avoid.

            Whether religious belief, house purchase or education purchase is the method, it is still hypocrisy.

            • Poor Paul. What makes you think I am a religious zealot? I am crushed.
              I suspect the real problem is that you found it necessary to pay for your childrens’ education when the same or better is available to your neighbourhood Jews/Catholics/CofE parents courtesy of the state. Envy is one of the worst pains so you do have my sympathy there. Time to get over it though.

            • Because any sane religious person (like my Vicar Mother-in-Law) would laugh at comments like “Sky Fairies” rather than accuse the poster of being mentally ill ?

            • Your mother in law just laughs when you call God a ‘sky fairy’, and her a religious zealot, a hypocrite and more? I guess she isn’t paying much attention to anything you say. OK

            • Good bit of writing from Max Dunbar on related issues; rare in its sense and balance of principle vs reality.


  13. hilarious- ‘holiday in Tuscany’ has to be the ultimate qualification.

    blue peter badges run it close….

  14. Is the first type Jackie Ashley?

    (One daughter at Godolphin and Latymer, the other at Lady Eleanor Holles, the woman herself grander than Marie Antoinette and the Duchess of Devonshire combined.)

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