Two or three mornings a week I walk our four-year-old down to his Catholic primary school in Camden Town. As we pass an expensive though rather bad private school, we have to squeeze our way through the mayhem of north Londoners decanting their pampered progeny from their double-parked 4x4s.
I can’t say I like the look of the boys that much. If I were teaching them, I would tell them to do up their ties and get their ruddy hair cut. But it is the parents I find seriously disturbing, for they have absolutely no sense of the impact their cars, children and dogs have on our neighbourhood.
I am ashamed to admit that as I peer in through the tinted windows of their Porsche Cayennes at the vacant, entitled mothers texting their pedicurists, I feel the red mist descending. I would like to claim my chippiness is due to some late-onset sense of social justice and a belief in the virtues of state education. But in truth I am mostly resentful that I feel excluded from this gilded world, and worry that our children, though well taught, are currently billeted in prefabricated classrooms in their state primary schools.
Like many of my expensively educated friends, I find I spend a humiliating amount of my day pondering my family’s educational downward mobility. Neil Kinnock famously made much of the fact that he was the first Kinnock in history to have gone to university. I am haunted by the fear that our little darlings will be the first Robinsons since the repeal of the Corn Laws to go to a bog-standard secondary school, where they won’t be taught about Magna Carta, but will learn how to put a condom on a banana.
Andrew Gimson — a fellow freelance writer dependent on a fast-declining newspaper industry — recently wrote in these pages that private schools are unnecessary because parental influence is the dominant factor in a child’s development. I wish I were so convinced. Andrew had the very good sense to marry a rising Labour political star, which means that for political reasons they could not, anyway, have shelled out £30,000 a year per child to produce impeccably mannered and highly educated Gimsons of the type that came off the Uppingham School production line in the 1970s.
Sadly I have no such excuse not to beggar myself, as my parents did in putting their four children through the private system.
The truly annoying aspect of this is that there is absolutely no need for private school fees to be so astronomically expensive. These schools offered first-class teaching long before they decided they must pamper their pupils, and impress the parents, with pointless drama centres and music blocks. And it has become a vicious circle. The more the schools try to appeal to the global super-rich, the more the fees go up, so fewer of the native middle class can go, and the schools become even more dependent on Chinese and Russian oligarchs and criminals.
Year after year of above-inflation increases mean that, since the early 1980s, fees have trebled in real terms, detaching the public schools from their natural constituency, the children of the ordinary middle class. Take a look at the corporate language in the prospectuses of the top public schools and you will be transported to a bizarre world, which seemingly owes little to educational excellence and much to ‘iconic’ facilities.
On top of its ‘Olympic-standard running track’, swimming pool, tennis and fives courts, fencing pistes, and climbing wall, Harrow School boasts of its state-of-the-art exercise room complete with £260,000 worth of the ‘best exercise and conditioning equipment available’. Conditioning equipment? What with the weather being so unreliable north of London, the prospectus notes that every year the First XV rugger squad undergo preseason training in Biarritz, for no other reason, presumably, than that they can.
My old school, Westminster, is now heavily engaged in this facilities arms race, having recently invited its old boys and girls to contribute to a £46 million fund to create a ‘transformational’ sports centre just off Vincent Square, SW1. This is particularly absurd given that Westminster has long been an outstanding academic school, and one in which games were frowned upon. The school colour is pink, for heaven’s sake, and when the brutes from Bryanston and Radley turned up in the late 1970s to thrash us at cricket, they rightly regarded us as a bunch of pansies.
Transformational sports centre? If you really want your son to be turned into a rugger bugger who ends up studying farming science at Cirencester, you would not pick Westminster, but rather send him to one of those hearty hellholes in the country.
Many headmasters and mistresses are privately in despair at how their schools are changing under their feet. Some schools discreetly offer fee reductions to select pupils to offset the growing Chinese and Indian bias, and of course there are other ‘fee abatement’ bursaries, which tend to mean these schools are now full of the very rich and the very poor.
Dr Martin Stephen, who retired last year as high master of St Paul’s in west London (boarding fees nearly £30,000 p.a., day fees just shy of £20,000), has given warning that ‘the independent sector is becoming socially exclusive in a way not seen since Victorian times’. He fears the schools are making a historic error in becoming dependent on the ‘fool’s gold’ of rich foreign parents, for this makes them vulnerable should public opinion turn against them.
A friend announced the other week that he was taking his girls out of their private prep school partly to preserve financial ammunition for the coming secondary-level financial splurge. But they also realised that very few of the children in their daughters’ school had parents with books in their home. ‘We found we were buying into a lifestyle, not an education,’ said this (privately educated) friend.
In our corner of north London, we pray for Michael Gove’s good health, and will the new academy down the road to succeed. If Gove prevails in raising the standard of state education through academies and free schools, a lot of not-very-good private schools will fold, and my family will continue to enjoy foreign holidays.
My personal dilemma is heightened by the fact that I am not sure I actually would want our children to go to my old school as it is today. In the 1970s, Westminster was a slightly rackety place, eccentric, irreverent and fun. My drunken house master (now deceased) would occasionally have to be carried back to his flat by the monitors after passing out during a late night inspection of the junior dormitory. Another master was having an affair with one of the mothers. One teacher was said to have slept with a sixth former. Great stuff, and character building for the rest of us.
Gym was conducted by a sadistic ex-serviceman who despised the namby-pamby boys. We didn’t hanker after a transformational sports facility for the obvious reason that it was much more interesting to go for a smoke in the cloisters of the Abbey and talk pretentious rubbish about 17th-century France.
There was no drama centre, no music school, just a series of random ancient buildings united only by the excellence of the teaching that went on within. Today, judging by the fund-raising brochures that keep coming through my front door, the whole place looks smug, joyless and self-important.
I rang Dr Stephen to ask about his anxieties for the future of his old school and the others. He says public schools are not in crisis yet, but that the direction of travel is dangerous. Fees must stop rising above the rate of inflation, and he says that when the private sector says it offers choice and an alternative to state education, it must actually ho
nour that promise.
‘There will always be a place for the top schools, the Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, but you also need the Vauxhall Astras.’
That, of course, is exactly what most of us want — a non-flashy, specifically academic education that is not delivered by the dead hand of the state, or Camden council. I’d take the Astra any day, and I wouldn’t want the aircon, the sound system, or indeed any of the other transformational extras.