Ishak Ayiris’s Ethiopian father had two dreams in life: to come to England and to see his son go to the same school as the Prime Minister. With the first dream realised some time ago, Ishak’s dad will see the second fulfilled in September, when the 15-year-old, who goes to Forest Gate Community School in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, starts his A-levels at Eton on a full £76,000 scholarship.
Ishak’s achievement emerged on the same day that David Laws, the Schools Minister, told the Education Select Committee that the “sharp-elbowed parents” of the middle classes who spent money sending their children to private school, or on a home close to the best state schools, were no bad thing – in fact, he said, they were worth emulating.
These two stories sum up the opposing ends of the education debate, two heads of Dr Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu double-headed llama straining in different directions. Everyone knows that the “sharp-elbowed parents” of the middle classes dominate the education system and have their pick of school places – it is a force of nature almost impossible to control. It is not just any llama’s head – it is a llama’s head made of tensile steel, graphene and diamonds. Pulling against this are the brilliant schools, with inspirational head teachers such as Simon Elliott of Forest Gate, parents such as Ishak’s father, who do their own bit of sharp-elbowed pushiness to fight for their children, and pupils such as Ishak, who is talented enough to win an Eton scholarship. Ishak was helped by the pupil premium, where government money is channelled to schools with poorer children. The state does what it can to pull in the right direction, through the premium, academies and free schools (if they are in areas where there is need). But this end of the llama is not strong enough.
The dreams of Ishak’s father blow apart the common belief that it is only the middle classes who are “pushy” for their children – as though working-class parents don’t care about their sons’ or daughters’ education. I feel incensed when people say they are sending their children to private school because “this is what any parent would do, to get the best for their child” – completely failing to understand that not every family can afford the fees. Surely most parents want the best for their child, whether they live in a council flat or a large house in the most affluent of areas, with a choice of a brilliant state school next door or a fee-paying independent school which will not break the bank. The distinction is between those who have the ability to muscle their way in and those who do not. But the deciding factor remains money.
Ishak’s story is remarkable because it is so rare. At Forest Gate, two more boys have won scholarships to City of London and Winchester. Mr Elliott’s success is all the more laudable because his school – a normal state secondary, not a free school – has 64 per cent of its pupils on free meals – three times the national average, while 73 per cent do not speak English as their first language.
But scholarships such as Ishak’s are limited. There is the huge problem of what Andrew Adonis, in his book Education, Education, Education, calls private schools’ “huge footprint in almost every national elite” that makes the British education system still shockingly unfair. In a recent speech, Michael Gove talked of tearing down the “Berlin Wall” in education, of making state schools as good as independents, with rigorous tests. He also hailed the sponsoring of academies by independent schools – who offer money as well as teaching guidance.
This drive has been led by Lord Adonis, who says that independents have an “essential moral and charitable purpose” to help state schools and that those “that simply sell privilege can’t continue to call themselves charities”. Eton was founded as a school for poor scholars. Not everyone can win a scholarship, but David Cameron’s alma mater is sponsoring Holyport College, a state secondary that will open in September. Yet only 15 private schools have sponsored academies – given that there are more than 1,600 independent primary and secondary schools, this number is woefully small.
When the education system is so unfair, isn’t it down to the government to have sharper elbows on behalf of all children? Gove’s “Berlin Wall” speech was full of stirring words, but if he really wants to spread privilege, as Cameron once said, he would insist that private schools’ charitable status be conditional on doing something charitable.
Jim O’Neill, the economist who coined the terms “Brics” and more recently “Mint” to describe the world’s emerging powerhouses, added fuel to the debate about the geographical imbalance between London and the North last week by suggesting a northern “super-city” of Liverpool and Manchester could help rebalance the economy. I can’t think of a thing the people of each city would hate more. But anyway, the debate about London’s agglomeration is missing some key balancing facts. According to IPPR North, while 22 per cent of the nation’s wealth is in London, not that much less (19 per cent) is in the North of England. The wealth of eight core cities outside London amounts to 27 per cent. Yet the Treasury is spending £4,893 per head on London’s transport infrastructure, compared with £246 per person in the North-east and £839 in the North-west. There is a danger that the political and media class is turning London’s agglomeration into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sky’s the limit
Am I the only one to feel a bit queasy about Sky News’ trailing of its coverage of the trial of Oscar Pistorius, which starts on Monday? Given the Paralympian is accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, the dramatic imagery and slick music to trumpet its coverage is a bit tacky and inappropriate for such a sober subject. I cannot think of a stronger argument against televising trials in this country.
In an interview with the latest issue of Red, Gloria de Piero is asked about her decision not to have children. The shadow minister for women says she has never had that “compelling urge” before adding, quite pointedly, that no woman should ever be asked “the kids question”. I totally agree. As she says, male politicians are never asked “Why haven’t you got children?” There are plenty of de Piero’s male colleagues who are childless, but we journalists never grill them on their lack of “paternal instinct”. Being a politician parent gives you a different standpoint, but de Piero’s background – northern working class, brought up on benefits – is so rare in Westminster her point of view is much more valuable. As she says: “There should be many more stories like mine, but the truth is there aren’t enough.”