Mary Ann Sieghart: State school is Cameron's only option

The PM's Etonian background was his big handicap when he ran for leader. There is something toxic about its reputation

David Cameron used to say, half-jokingly, to his Education Secretary Michael Gove: "I'm relying on you to make sure there are good schools available when Nancy and Elwen get to secondary-school age." Now the Prime Minister is deadly serious. His oldest child, Nancy, is in year 2 of a Church of England primary in Kensington. And we heard yesterday that her parents are already thinking of sending her and their two other children to one of the new city academies being built in that borough.

You can't help where your parents sent you to school. You can choose where to educate your own children. Or, as Cameron is fond of putting it when he is ribbed about his background: "It's not where you come from – it's where you're going." Which is why, having been sent to Eton himself, he is now planning to mark the end of a long political tradition.

Conservative Prime Ministers have always chosen private schools for their children. Until recently, many Labour Prime Ministers, including Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, did too. Tony Blair understood that, as a public-school-educated Labour leader, he couldn't afford to alienate his party further by sending his children down the same route. Now no Labour leader could consider educating their children privately. And if Cameron follows Blair's lead, it may soon become unthinkable for any Prime Minister of any party to opt out of the state education system.

For Cameron, the impetus is particularly powerful. Both he and his wife come from hugely privileged backgrounds. His Etonian education was his biggest handicap when he ran for leader. There is something peculiarly toxic about that school's reputation: George Osborne isn't derided for having gone to St Paul's, or Nick Clegg for Westminster. But even two decades ago, in the 1990 leadership election, Douglas Hurd had to play down his Etonian schooling by insisting that he was a scholarship boy and that his father was only a tenant farmer. (That Michael Heseltine had been to Shrewsbury was never an issue.)

Cameron knows that he needs to decontaminate the Conservative brand. One of the reasons he failed to win the election outright was that too many people believed the Tories were still the party of the rich. Both he and his closest lieutenant, Osborne, have had the privilege of substantial inherited wealth. At a time when most of the country is feeling seriously squeezed, it is all too easy to portray senior Cabinet ministers as out of touch, not understanding the problems ordinary people face.

For many years, too, the Tories were seen as the party that didn't appreciate the value of public services and couldn't be trusted to protect them. When Margaret Thatcher famously said that she paid for private health insurance "to enable me to go into the hospital I want, at the time I want, and with a doctor I want," she infuriated those who couldn't afford private healthcare and were forced to rely on the NHS. If she wasn't prepared to put up with long waiting lists and lack of choice, why should they?

Cameron neutralised at least some of the suspicion surrounding the Conservatives' commitment to the NHS by explaining how much his family had come to rely on the health service's treatment of his disabled son Ivan. It is now pretty much unthinkable that he would follow Thatcher's example and have a private operation.

Much more than in the past, the personal is political. We want a narrative from our leaders, and we expect it to be summed up by the way they live. The vision of David and Samantha Cameron sleeping on NHS hospital floors when Ivan was ill helped us believe that the Conservative leader's protestations of support were sincere. The sight of his children trooping into Kensington Aldridge Academy rather than Eton or Wycombe Abbey would help us credit him with understanding the problems facing parents and pupils at state schools.

It would be easier if the Conservatives had a decent ideological argument for supporting public services. Many feel they have to do so because that is what voters want, but they have a suspicion that it's all rather left-wing. More thoughtful ones, such as David Willetts, have tried to come up with better justifications. He sees the public funding of schools and hospitals as a form of mutual insurance. Your children need education mainly when you are young and earning little; you need health services mainly when you are old and earning nothing. It is when you are earning the most and paying the most tax that you need them least. So it makes sense to ask us to contribute when we can most afford to and spread the benefits across our lifetimes.

As the Tories aren't making this ideological case, it's not unreasonable for voters to expect them at least to have a practical, personal interest in protecting public services. There was a reason why education and health barely even featured in Thatcher's first two terms; almost all her ministers went private, so they didn't come up against the frustrations or inadequacy of public provision. Blair, by contrast, was painfully aware of the difficulty of finding a good state secondary school for his children in London. "Education, education, education" was a slogan that stemmed from personal experience.

By choosing the state-school route for his children, Cameron has raised the stakes for the rest of his ministers. Gove, whose children are at the same state primary as the Camerons, knows that they will have to remain in the state sector. The country would no longer tolerate an Education Secretary with children at private schools.

But what about George Osborne? His children started at a state primary – another good Church of England school in Westminster – but have moved to a private prep school. For now, he can get away with it. He has always been more private about his family than Cameron. Chancellors, unlike Prime Ministers, aren't expected to bare all. The public perception of Osborne, though, is that he is rather more snooty and less affable than Cameron. Although he didn't go to Eton, he betrays a certain haughtiness. If the Chancellor were to run for leader in eight or 10 years' time, the fact that his children were at private school might serve to confirm that reputation.

His Tory colleagues are now intrigued to see what decision the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt takes when his baby is older. He is ambitious, and widely thought to be Osborne's main rival for the leadership when Cameron goes. Hunt too is rich, but he made his own money rather than inheriting it. If Hunt chooses the state system, the race could easily be portrayed as one between old, privileged and new, meritocratic Tory.

Of course if the state education system has been transformed by then, the problem for Osborne may be far less acute. It is only because the gulf between state and private schools is still so wide that the issue is political. Perhaps, by 2021, only a fool would bother to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on educating his children privately when the network of academies and free schools is so marvellous. Don't hold your breath, though. It takes many years to produce a state system as good as the lycées across the Channel. Why are French women so well-dressed? Because they don't have to spend money on school fees.