Fiona Millar

Diary - 31 January 2004

Escape from Oz: this Dorothy finds her own private Kansas

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I feel a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Having been sucked into a tornado and deposited for almost ten years in a technicolour world of high political and personal drama in the wake of my other half, Alastair Campbell, I am back, not in Kansas but in black-and-white north London whence I came: being a journalist, hanging out with the kids, rarely getting out of my jeans and trainers, even riding a bike, for God’s sake. I have even got my own version of the ruby slippers — a cupboard full of posh ‘state visit’ suits (essential in No. 10) never to be worn again.

The thing about politics is that when you’re at the heart of it, everything seems so real and urgent. Once you get out, you realise the extent to which it passes the public by. In my new incarnation as a fitness writer for the Guardian (I am now jokingly referred to at home as the lifestyle guru to the chattering classes), I spend a lot of time in the gym watching the news in what I call treadmill mode. This means that it has to compete with channel-hopping between the Kilroy-type ‘why did my mother have to sleep with my fiancé the night before my wedding?’ programme — he should definitely have been taken off air years ago on taste grounds alone — and Britney Spears. Since most exercise is best done to music, this means the news usually gets the zap button. WMD, George Bush and Hutton definitely fall into this category, especially if you have already had to live through them. Meanwhile, the real politics goes on in the changing room, where people talk about their jobs, whether their salaries will take them through to the end of the month and their worries about their kids.

I’d probably be in the gym all day if it weren’t for my other recent day-job, making a film about schools for Channel 4. Ever since I agreed to do a public debate on comprehensive education against the two ugly sisters of the education world, Chris Woodhead and Melanie Phillips, I have been deluged with requests to write, speak and broadcast on the apparently astonishing fact that I happily send my children to state schools, as if it were some kind of disease. The reason for this must be that in the chatterati world of the London media so few support the state sector. Of course I have long understood that these people — the more liberal, the worse they are in my experience — usually have very ‘special’ children, too clever/dyslexic/dyspraxic, etc., to cope with the rough and tumble of the local comp. But so much of the rubbish that is written about education comes from people who have a vested interest in talking it down to justify their own decision to opt out. One of the things I will be looking at in the film is the effect this has on the perception of state education — used by 93 per cent of people in this country — as a whole.

I have had some highs and lows making the film — and the odd feeling that I had gone back to Oz. One of these was when I visited Westminster school, as I had never been into one of the ‘top’ public schools before. The head, Tristram Jones-Parry, was a charmer (even though I didn’t agree with a word he said) and got ten A*s for being the only independent-school head who agreed to speak to me. I spent quite a bit of time looking for something that might resemble a playground. Eventually I realised that the ancient quad (complete with window boxes), in which I felt sure a game of quidditch was about to start up, was the area in which the boys spent their break. Fast-forward four hours to one of the low moments of the film: a visit to Lilian Baylis school, a concrete jungle barely two miles from Westminster but another world altogether, one of great disadvantage in which a young staff, under the leadership of a tough and inspiring head, are determined to drag the school out of the league-table gutter (against the backdrop of ‘beg in the streets’ Letwin’s crass comments). Whatever we may or may not believe about the failings of the state system (and there are some, just as there are in the private sector), can it really be right that children born into a world of such privilege and advantage as the students at Westminster undoubtedly are have so much more lavished on them than the kids who most desperately need routes out of their poverty and low aspiration? If we’re not going to get rid of charitable status — and there’s not a hope in hell of that — I’d go for a mandatory ‘giving something back’. Maybe the boys from LBS might like to pop across the river for a game of quidditch or, more seriously, maybe all those top-notch schools with their small classes and cutting-edge teachers should take five or ten of the most difficult, disruptive kids from the local state schools. The teachers might learn something.

I can’t pretend that the shadow of Hutton hasn’t been hanging over us — and by the time this is published we will know what the noble Lord has to say — but one of the side effects of being put through the public wringer is that you realise who your real friends are. Back in Kansas — oops, I mean Kentish Town — they have remained solidly four-square, but it is always revelatory to see how the great and the good pan out. I am too discreet to spill the beans on that, although it was very interesting who did and didn’t phone while our summer holiday was being decimated last year. One heartening moment in the past week, though, was a phone call from Michael Foot wishing us fraternal greetings in difficult times. I love Michael and hope he goes on and on to 100. One of my many regrets is that I didn’t follow the advice of his late wife, Jill Craigie, to keep my own diary. I would have had a very interesting tale to tell, but sadly was too busy multi-tasking with three kids and a full-time job while Alastair was penning his now infamous prose. Maybe this is the start of something new....