Buying more than just a good education

If the independent schools' sector is going to survive in a changing world, it must shed its unpleasant ethos
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The Independent Online
The bill has just come in from my son's London prep school at the end of term. Tucked neatly inside was a glossy leaflet, the bulletin of the Friends of Independent Schools. It is a document sent out with most private school bills in Britain.

Am I a Friend of Independent Schools? Well, each of my four children has spent some time in one, at differing points in their school careers. But a Friend? I suppose so, yes. I do not indulge in that liberal queasiness that uses the private sector but blushes and apologises. I could say: "Well, I live in Lambeth, worst schools in the country, so you see, really, we had little choice. If I lived in Potters Bar or somewhere, of course it would be different." Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't, but like most people who can afford it, I would be secure in the knowledge that I still had the choice to go private if I didn't like the way things were going in a state school. So, as I started to read this bulletin, I was willing to accept the sobriquet "Friend".

That was until I actually read it. It turned out to be not a general newsletter about exciting and innovative best practice ideas in private schools, but almost entirely devoted to anti-Labour propaganda. Without any actual untruth, its cumulative effect is misleading about the state of Labour policy.

True, this time last year the Labour Party made a slight dog's breakfast of its policy, when David Blunkett mentioned some possibilities, including an end to charitable status and imposing VAT on private schools, only to have to eat his words by lunchtime when Tony Blair repudiated him. But who in their right mind really thinks Tony Blair's secret agenda is to get into power and effectively demolish private education as soon as he steps inside No 10? Even though Labour's past policy has been antagonistic towards private education and there will always be a strong vein of sentiment against it, Tony Blair is unlikely to loosen his grip on this key policy in the face of a consistent 70 per cent public opposition to abolishing private schools.

Even the pledge on the assisted places scheme, which Labour has said it will abandon, is watered down, with talk of special schemes for local education authorities to buy places in private schools for gifted or musical or other exceptional children. Schools may in future have to earn their charitable status by showing they offer some of their facilities to others in the community. But this hardly amounts to a Red Peril.

Is this policy so threatening as to justify a whole campaign addressed to private school parents? In the bulletin, the director of Isis, the independent schools' lobby that produces the leaflet, writes: "It is unclear to what extent so-called 'New' Labour has undergone a genuine conversion to an acceptance of parents exercising choice in ways which are contrary to Old Labour's long-entrenched prejudices against independent education and academic selection. It will almost certainly remain unclear until Labour in government has to resolve its internal conflicts.

"We know Labour would attack choice by phasing out the assisted places scheme. We know that attacking the charitable status of independent schools is back on the agenda.

"We know it still upholds the comprehensive ideal: academic selection, whether in independent or the remaining state grammar schools, is anathema.

"We know that, whatever fine words may come from the national spokesmen of "New" Labour about co-operation between maintained and independent sectors, Old Labour at local level takes every opportunity to attack it."

And opposite this commentary there is a glowing interview with Gillian Shephard, who is headlined, unsurprisingly, as "declaring her wholehearted support for the independent sector".

When I questioned David Woodhead, the Isis director, he said it was their job to challenge Labour policy and, anyway, they had printed an interview with David Blunkett in the full Isis magazine recently.

By now I am affronted by the idea that because I send my child to a private school I must be a fully paid-up Tory. It reminds me of a number of uncomfortable occasions in meetings with some parents and teachers, where the same crude assumption has been made. Of course, many teachers and heads are not like that at all; but when you buy into the private sector, you risk buying into a whole People-Like-Us ethos, and People Like Us means Tory.

Parents have all kinds of obvious reasons for choosing private schools - higher standards, more creative activities, smaller classes, better facilities and better exam results. But many private schools also like to suggest that their children will breathe in a "better" social ethos, or at least fewer anti-social attitudes.

A friend of mine's 10-year-old came home from his private school last week, a boy in constant trouble, not for real wickedness, but loss of every possession and perpetual detention for maths. His school has a comprehensive nearby, fairly black, and he reports that the most frequent insult he gets from his teachers is, "You look as if you come from XXX! You have the manners of an XXX boy! You should be in XXX!" (the neighbourhood comprehensive). Being politically aware, incensed by snobbery and, anyway, lippy, he finally asked one of them with faux naivety, "Why? What's wrong with XXX?" This was the mystifying answer: "Oh, they probably play reggae music on their fire alarm!"

So the private sector may buy you attitudes you do not like at all, redolent of an unthinking caste consciousness, racist, snobbish, giving the children a sense that anyone from a state school is an unwashed alien.

Considering that only 7.2 per cent of children go to private schools, this is hardly likely to equip them well for the real world out there. Except, perhaps, that some of them will manage to live for ever in a little sheltered Tory cocoon among those bankers, accountants, lawyers, stockbrokers or army officers who never mix socially from cradle to grave with anyone of a different background.

Well, what do you expect, I hear some readers retort, if you will insist on sending your child into a privileged elitist enclave?

This is what I expect: a private education system that reflects a world outside that has changed beyond all recognition. The knee-jerk, pull-up- the-drawbridge-and-keep-the-oiks-out attitude exuded by some teachers in these schools comes from a bygone age, and they'd better get real. More than half of all children now in private schools have parents both of whom were state educated. The Blair victory Isis so fears will in itself signal that voting habits at last cut across the old class battle lines.

If the private sector wants to offer "values" along with better computer facilities and science labs, it had better stop, take a deep breath, and consider just what these "values" are. Are children to be taught generosity, consideration for others, social awareness, a measure of humility at their own unearned good fortune and a sense of obligation to the community in which many may occupy positions of influence? Or are they simply to learn yobbishness of the monied kind: "My parents paid for me to come here so I can earn more, vote Tory, pay fewer taxes and look after my own"?