MPs 'have duty to opt for state schooling'

Public sector must lead by example to build fair society, says senior Labour MP

Andrew Grice,Political Editor
Monday 06 April 2009 00:00
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MPs and public sector staff have a moral duty to educate their own children in state rather than private schools, a senior Labour MP has declared.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, has appealed to MPs in all parties to "lead by example" to combat the impression that the only way better-off people can guarantee their children a good education is to send them to independent schools.

Writing in the Fabian Society's magazine to be published this week, Mr Sheerman – who was educated by the state – said BBC staff and priests should also join a new campaign to convince other parents to put their faith in the state sector.

He said private schools should not be abolished but claimed that, while only 7 per cent of children go to them, they are damaging Labour's attempts to improve social mobility and create a fair society.

The Huddersfield MP said there was an opportunity to launch an all-party drive in favour of the state system because Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the three main party leaders, are all likely to opt for state schools for their own children. "Elected representatives in public office should lead by example and send their children to the kind of community schools that their constituents send their children to. This is particularly important for MPs," he said.

He criticised MPs representing affluent parts of the South-east who claim they cannot find good schools for their sons and daughters. "Not only do I not believe this, I am convinced that community schools can only be made better when all of the community supports them. Education is not a commodity; it is our preparation for a democratic society," he said.

Mr Sheerman said questions should be asked when well-paid managers in the public sector fail to support community schools. "Those who are in education – vice-chancellors, head teachers, directors of children services and so on – should feel morally obliged to support the state school system.

"If wealthier parents persist in sending their children to independent schools, then there is a clear tension between individuals' strategies to raise standards and our policies to reduce inequality. I would like to extend this ethos to all those local and national civil servants who receive their salaries courtesy of the public purse," he said.

He suggested that the BBC's coverage of education could not be "objective and impartial" because many of its managers and journalists were privately-educated. He complained of a "persistent campaign against state education" in national newspapers.

"We are drip-fed the notion that if you have the income, you have no option but to push your child into the independent sector. To consider the local community school, the comprehensive or academy is to show a complete lack of interest in your child's future," he said. "This rhetoric leads only to greater socio-economic segregation across schools and reinforces further socio-economic disadvantage."

Mr Sheerman said that priests, like politicians, have a similar responsibility. "What a delight it would be for so many parishioners to learn that the leader of the flock thought their community's schools were good enough for their own children," he said.

While Tory politicians are more likely to send their children to private schools, Labour figures who have used them include Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former lord chancellor, the left-wing MP Diane Abbott and Ruth Kelly, the former transport secretary, who sent her son to one because he has dyslexia. Mr Clegg has not ruled out using the independent sector for his sons, but said he hopes he does not need to move them out of state schools.

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