It was hard not to feel sympathy for Nick Clegg when he was asked on his radio phone-in this week about plans for his eldest son's education. With Antonio's transfer to secondary school looming this autumn, the Cleggs face the choice all parents face at this stage: not just which school to choose but, if money allows, whether to go state or private. The dilemma is particularly sharp in London because of the shortage of places and – despite the big improvement in the capital's schools – because of the gap between the truly excellent and, frankly, not so excellent.
For a politician, however, the choice is still more complicated. Going private is all too often interpreted as a vote of no confidence in state education. For a Labour politician, especially, this can be the kiss of death; if the decision itself does not stymie a career, the pillorying that follows may well do. Many will recall the vilification of Diane Abbott and Ruth Kelly when they chose private schools for their sons. Tony Blair played the religion card, sending his children to the sought-after Oratory School.
Yet politicians of all stripes can find themselves saying one thing and, when it comes to their own child, doing another. David Cameron, the old Etonian, has made much of the fact that his elder daughter attends a state primary. But it is early days yet.
Few would dispute that there are big disparities – in facilities and attainment – between the best private schools in Britain and the average state secondary. Few would deny either that, in an ideal world, those disparities, or the private schools themselves, would be made to disappear. But this is not an ideal world, and no government, least of all this one, is going to legislate to nationalise the public schools.
The private/state school divide probably does more than anything else to perpetuate class distinctions in Britain; as such, it is a blight on our national life. So long as it exists, though, politicians must be allowed the same freedom as everyone else to choose their child's school, without the choice being held against them. Mr Clegg said he did not want his children's education, or his children, to become "a political football". He is right. The Cleggs have kept their children out of the political limelight; their schooling should be kept out of it, too.
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