Tom Greene: Stop demonising us for wanting good schools

I chose mine because the facilities were nice and the football pitch was green
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Never mind Ruth Kelly, last week my own (private) school was involved in a scandal of its own. A group of GCSE students had filmed themselves performing a "rap battle" in the school playground and had posted it on YouTube, only for a local newspaper to uncover it, swear words and all. The scoop was whacked straight on the front page: "World audience for foul-mouthed rappers". It was North London's own Watergate. The article described the incident as one "you would expect to see on the streets of New York or Detroit". A local resident also spoke out, "Lots of people... are sickened as they have themselves not been able to have such an exclusive education and these boys can act like thugs, say what they want and go back to luxury."

How very British. He wasn't bothered that the pupils had been "hurling offensive lyrics" but that they could do it and then put their feet up on a suede pouf in a multimillion-pound mansion. The idea that the behaviour would have been less morally reprehensible if the pupils had returned to a gas bill and a cockroach in Detroit or New York is absurd. Indeed, you have to wonder whether it was this same attitude that drove Gordon Brown to declare yesterday that he would educate his children through the state system.

It was reported that the Browns' children will attend "the same kind of local primary school as any other ordinary child in central London". Ordinary child? It is about time that we stopped demonising those that attend private schools, and this could have started with Mr Brown. This would have been a perfect opportunity for him to make a bold education statement. He could have said that while he would ideally want everybody to go their local comprehensive, he realised that these were not all at the standard he would like. He could have backed Ruth Kelly and said that he understood, she needed to find the best education she could for her son and that he would try his hardest to improve special needs facilities so that parents would not have to remove their children from the state sector. Instead, he mustered a reaction that belongs in the school playground.

The fact is that we did not elect Ruth Kelly's son. What really outrages people is New Labour's education policy, so why don't they just say it? Those that have children with special needs are annoyed that more than a 100 special needs schools have been closed by Labour in favour of integration into the mainstream; far-left members of the party are frustrated that the private system even exists; the teachers' unions are angry that New Labour has failed to curb middle-class reluctance to keep their children in the state sector. However, the debate has not been about these grievances. Much like Gordon Brown's response, it reflects an outdated and counterproductive attitude towards the education system .

Take the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson. He has just announced that oversubscribed schools should assign places by lottery in order to stop the middle classes buying houses in areas with good schools. The fact that parents should have to move in order to go to a school they deem acceptable should get the education department's think tanks thinking that perhaps it is the schools that need improving - not the system. But no! It is... the middle classes' fault, "playing the system" all the way from their SUVs.

The second gem to come out of Mr Johnson's department was that schools should share badly behaved pupils so that they weren't overburdened with them. This is plain bizarre. Pupils aren't like Top Trumps. For one thing, these policies seem to offer utterly warped incentives. A school has no reason to improve if its pupils are assigned to it by chance and naughty-boy draft. Similarly, those pupils who dislike their school may as well do an Ashley Cole and sulk themselves into a transfer to somewhere better.

Those parents who send their children to private schools or move house in order for their children to receive the best possible state education shouldn't be made to feel as if they are committing some heinous crime.

When I chose my school it was not because, at eleven, I was a raving right-wing boy hell-bent on rejecting the state; the teachers looked friendly, the facilities were nice and the football pitch was green. It is these fundamentals that Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson and the education department should concentrate on rather than forcing people to pick schools out of a lucky dip.