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Gove, Cameron and the myth of ‘state vs private’ schools

10 March 2014

Will David Cameron send his kids to a state secondary school, as Michael Gove is doing? Today’s papers are following up James Forsyth’s suggestion that Cameron will slum it as well. But this story takes, as its premise, the ludicrous notion of a binary divide between private and public. In fact, anyone lucky (and, let’s face it, rich) enough to get into a good state secondary in London has no need of going private. And this is arguably the greater scandal.

I can offer an example. I’m house-hunting the moment, and last weekend viewed this cramped wee house, with poky rooms, listed for an outrageous price. But the estate agent justified the premium by explaining: ‘It’s in the catchment area for Tiffin School’ – one of the best schools in the land, with attainment better than most private schools. Whoever buys that house would pay about £150,000 more than the property would be worth just outside the catchment area. But you’d be buying access to one of the best schools in Britain. A father of three could save well over £150,000 on school fees. That’s how it works in Britain: you game the system. There are some state schools that millionaires could not afford.

Can someone – ideally Fiona Millar – please explain why this is acceptable? To me, it sounds appalling. The left tends not to be angry at the way the state system gives the worst education to the poorest kids. Newsnight’s Chris Cook once demonstrated the single greatest scandal: that our state system has a direct link between poverty and attainment. Here it is: he called it the Graph of Doom. (And should have won an award for demonstrating this).


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According to Lloyds, a house near a good state school typically commands a £30,000 premium. In a third of areas near the best schools, it’s £80,000. Houses near The Henrietta Barnett School, in north London, sell for a staggering £402,600 premium over those in neighbouring areas.

And make no mistake: the parents who avail themselves of such  schools are buying their education, every bit as much as the parents who go private. But should these parents then congratulate themselves on being on the side of the proletariat by eschewing the divisive private school sector?

As I wrote a while ago, Fiona Millar said she had written to newspaper editors ask if their kids go to private school. Here’s what I wrote then:

‘Had she included me in her little inquisition, I’d be able to say that my boys are state-educated. But only in her strange black-and-white world view does that put me on the side of the working man. I’m lucky enough to have been able to afford a house in a part of London where the state schools are excellent. (And make no mistake: Britain’s best state schools are as good, if not better, than private ones.) I’ve never understood why so many on the left congratulate themselves for sending their kids to a state school, when they have played the system to make damn sure they got into one of the best state schools. And they were able to game the system because had money, connections or both. Is that really so better, or more ‘progressive’, than saving money and going without holidays (as Michael Gove’s parents did) in order send your kids to private schools?’

Cameron has, to his credit, said he’d choose his school as a parent, not a politician – ie, he’d go private if he thought it was best. I’d say the same. Gove has said the same. He frequently points out the disparity in the system, embodied (he says) by publications like ‘The Tatler guide to state schools’. As it explains to would-be pupils:

‘And best of all, when you do finally get into the Cabinet, everyone will love you because you didn’t go to Eton.’

It’s worth adding what Tatler has to say about St Mary Abbotts school, where the mini Camerons go:

‘To snag a Foundation place, go to St Mary Abbots Church or Christ Church Kensington a lot: at least twice a month for the three years before you apply. And get to know the all-powerful, very charming vicar, Father Gillean – he enjoys a good dinner party, we hear.’

Ah the games, the games. Private schools, where you simply buy a place without having to feed Fr Gillean, are models of transparency by comparison. The ability to wangle a place into a good state school (as Blair and Clegg did with the Oratory) takes skills that money can’t buy. Such skills are pivotal when the school admission code is complex. Look at the Grey Coat Hospital’s rules – it even has a quota for girls who flunk its admissions exam (see para 3.1 of this pdf).

This isn’t to criticise Gove – he’s working to dismantle this cosy system, and deplores its shocking inequality. But if there is a massive divide in UK education, which side do you want your child to be on? It’s a no-brainer. Gove is in the position where he can choose. He was a successful journalist, now politician, married to another successful journalist. Unlike most millionaires in the Cabinet, the Goves’ wealth is earned, rather than inherited. They deserve their success.

But in Britain today, wealth tends to bring with it the ability to send kids to the best state schools. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

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Show comments
  • salamander

    This is really stupid. Tiffin hasn’t got a catchment. Entry is by highly competitive exam (so no wonder they get good results).

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    No mention of how the “best” state schools such as Grey Coat often have admissions criteria which manage to exclude low ability pupils and which take fewer disadvantaged pupils than the proportion living in the local area.

    The schools adjudicator found the admissions criteria for Grey Coat Hospital didn’t adhere to the Schools Admission Code that Gove’s department drew up.

    You can read about it here:

  • CraigStrachan

    “the Gove’s wealth is earned, rather than inherited”

    Well, it is possible to inherit wealth and earn it. In fact, I’m sure the one makes the other quite a bit easier.

    ( Mel Brooks in “Life Stinks” has a funny line on the question: “My father left me $5 million. It was NOTHING!”)

    • post_x_it

      Compare and contrast with, say, Margaret Hodge who was handed all of her vast wealth on a plate and now makes a career spouting bile about evil capitalists with high earnings.

  • Makroon

    i am surprised that Fraser Nelson thinks the best state schools are in expensive parts of London – they aren’t are they. Good state schools are spread across the country.
    And marginal differences in teaching success will not turn mediocre pupils from well-off families into geniuses. I think Fraser is mistaking a morbid middle-class neurosis, that their offspring might not be “good enough”, for something meaningful.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Of course you can always move to Kent where there are grammar schools.

      • Kitty MLB

        The biggest selection of grammar schools in the country I believe, are in Kent, even one in the delightfully named Sandwich, at least we’d
        the kids are being fed and not scavenging around in food banks.
        In fact Makroon, should except the invitation ( hope the rest of us have one too? ) regardless of the need for schools we shall all pack the horse
        and carriage and head towards the exquisite Andredesleadge.
        Note to Kippers: the use of Anglo- Saxon name to discombobulate
        immigrants arriving at Dover- they will never find that little gem.

  • khizar_07

    Some schools are better for Maths while others are better for Science!

  • khizar_07

    Grading a School based on what the Media says or creating league tables based on final A’Level exam grades is not a best reflection of teaching quality.
    A lot of the Schools have catchment areas so some schools may have 100% motivated students whereas other schools may have 50% motivated students.
    Teaching quality should be based on the performance of teachers delivering the subject material. How good their tuition/notes are and how much real world practical work they deliver.
    Having said that if the whole School is full of dossers (The Grange School) then it becomes very difficult for the Teachers to provide good tuition to a lone student!

    • Fergus Pickering

      dossers? Do you mean tossers or is this a new meaning for an old word?

  • Laura McInerney

    Are you advocating for lottery intakes? Or banded intakes? That’s quite unusual for a Conservative. Well done on being so open-minded. Or can I assume that if that was the situation and your child might have had to – as you put it – “slum it” with the regular kids you would have taken your them out and put them into private school?

    • Weaver

      Both might work to some degree in reducing selection by expensive postcode. But you’d just get the problem at one remove as people either fight for lottery places, or (if you make your lottery area big enough) you get large non-financial costs due to non-locality (“Why must Timmy go to a school 5 miles away rather than 100 yards down the road?”).

      Conservative and other analysts have been looking at the failure of state schools in the UK and US for well over a decade, and the serious literature is pretty non-partisan, but requires some fluency with statistics and economics. The current system is a triumph of the law of unintended consequences and supplier cartels. Economics suggests that supply reform rather than demand management is needed, and the greatest benefit would be to poor state pupils, hence Free Schools.

  • Magnolia

    Yes it is just another example of how the so-called ‘metropolitan elite’ operate and to be fair to them they have to do their best for their offspring but they are kidding themselves if they think that money can buy real brains.
    What they are really buying is privilege and opportunity in the eventual career systems for their children further along.
    No different to China really, except the kids learn less in our schools.
    Perhaps China is even more meritocratic?

    • La Fold

      Very interesting point. This is has been going on in China ever since the three kingdoms period when exams were set up to assess the quality of candidates nobles had recommended into imperial service. It has been used several times since to try and remove the power of nobles through the institution of mostly tribalistic patronage.

  • crosscop

    Why are our politicians always photographed with foreign children? I know things are getting bad but are there no British kids in our schools these days?

    • GraveDave

      I thought it was just me. But it does seem rather ‘coincidental’ that the last six shoots (and there’s been plenty of articles to back me up) we’ve seen of Gove seems to be like that above. And I find it hard to believe that the school, wherever it is, would be absolutely devoid of white children. Of course it seems racist to worry over such things. But it strikes me as just a little bit opportunistic of someone trying to court votes.

  • Kitty MLB

    I am in two minds about this, I one sense I deplore shallow tokenism.
    Politics has become far too personal, I could not give a flying monkey where
    politicians send their children to school or what nanny they have, their job is to lead a country and what ever happens they will be criticised regarding whatever state school their children attend.
    Some are even complaining that they are sending their children to expensive public schools, whilst Cameron will be using their taxes to send his children to free state schools.
    Yet the excellent Michael Gove is passionate about raising standards in state schools
    Labour had no clue regarding the education, knocking down school buildings in order
    to build them again, dumbing down the curriculum for “diversity” and dumbing
    down the exam system to secure higher pass rates. not forgetting over crowding
    our schools. As well as not supporting our excellent teachers and not sacking the bad ones. In the end its about freedom of choice.

  • David J Noble

    Henrietta Barnett School : catchment area is not going to help you get in here . I believe its capability , 100% .

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Blair gamed the system to get his children into the Oratory School. He then paid Westminster School masters to give his children extra tuition. Clegg has got a place for his son at the Oratory School. Politicians seem to think that because they can can do this, Joe Soap can as well and so everything must be alright. But it is not. The huge disparity in standards between schools is a disgrace.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Gove has gained much credibility now that he has turned green.

  • post_x_it

    There’s an obvious, significant advantage to buying an expensive house near a top state school vs. paying for an independent school: you can (absent a house price crash) recover the property investment later when you sell the house and move to a cheaper area. School fees, on the other hand, are a sunk cost.

    • Weaver

      There are still opportunity costs. You have an inferior house for several years.

  • HookesLaw

    Cameron and indeed every parent should be free to make the same choices as Diane Abbott.

  • Ed Cadwallader

    Educational success is linked to social class because schools rank children according to their academic ability, which is underpinned by the language they learn at home. Being well-educated is the same as being able to speak and write about the world in an educated way. You’re right that, if we accept this as just, it doesn’t make a difference if middle class children are taught that they are superior in state or private schools.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I don’t think middle-class children are taught they are superior. What kind of teaching would that be? Would teachers (many of them lefty) actually do this? Or are you talking out of your bottom?

      • Ed Cadwallader

        Middle class get higher grades than poor ones, that’s how they are they are taught they are superior.

        • Fergus Pickering

          But then in that particular way they are superior.

          • Ed Cadwallader

            ‘That particular way’ is how people who enjoy wealth and prestige select the future recipients of wealth and prestige.

            • Fergus Pickering

              I have no idea what you are talking about. Explain it.

              • Ed Cadwallader

                The fact that schools only judge academic performance is a choice we, as a society, make. The result of that choice is that middle class children grow up being told that they are destined for higher pay and more prestigious jobs than poor children.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  And what do you suggest schools are competent to judge on?

                • Ed Cadwallader

                  I think the best way to raise independent, respectful citizens is not to judge them at all.

                • Fergus Pickering

                  So there are schools and presumably they do instruct in a non-judgemental way.. But there are no examinations of any sort. Have I got the idea?

                • Ed Cadwallader

                  Yes, there is academic study but its assessment is based on student discussion, moderated by teachers, rather than teacher judgment alone. But that’s only half the story because in an all academic curriculum, rich children will still outperform poor ones. So I think all children should set up and run small businesses, in teams of four or five. That would teach them how to collaborate, develop professional relationships and most importantly that you can be very successful by doing simple things well.

  • A_Libertarian_Rebel

    The whole thing is pathetic. Cameron will no doubt desperately parade some look-I’m-not-really-a-rich-toff credentials, on the basis of his daughter going to a state school – while judiciously omitting to mention her state school’s about as far removed from the grisly reality of state schools for 90% of the population as chalk is from cheese. And he probably also thinks we won’t see through the ruse.

    It seems overwhelmingly likely that this will be done to make a political gesture, pandering to rather than countering leftist prejudice. And the effect will be to take up a place at a school which might otherwise have been filled by a bright kid from a modest background, whose parents couldn’t even dream about affording the private education alternative.

    Once upon a time, a Tory PM financially able to afford it would have sent his daughter to private school if her parents felt that was best for her, and robustly defended parental choice and economic freedom, telling the ideological mediocre-state-education-for-all egalitarians to get stuffed.

    But we don’t have a Tory PM with that kind of courage of convictions any more.

    • HookesLaw

      You would find something to complain about no matter what.

      • James Strong

        And now I’ll complain about your comment.
        Do you think, or are you able to show, that any part of libertarian rebel’s comment is wrong?
        Why don’t you try to discuss the issues?

      • Kitty MLB

        As soon as someone used the word “Toff” I just automatically
        switch off. Its one of those words used to please the flipper flapping
        most common denominator.

        • DWWolds

          Agreed Kitty.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      Pity the poor child whose education takes second place to the parent’s political grandstanding.

  • Daniel Maris

    Poorer children have a harder time in the foetus and are often born to people with genetic risk factors; following birth they receive less stimulation in the home and also do not receive the right nutrition. Put it altogether and graph of doom is easily explained.

    The real issue with the current system schools is how can people who want their children educated to high academic standards can achieve that outcome.

    The best solution I think would be to bring in education vouchers that could also be used in the private school system (on condition private schools integrate with the national curriculum and share sports facilities, teaching expertise etc.)

    Then give parents the right to choose whichever state school they wish for their child, but ensure there are academic schools and vocational schools to choose between. I think you would find that this woudl raise standards.

    • Weaver

      That’s a reasonable point – we should not expect the distribution of talent in poor children to be the same as in rich due to inheiritable effects. I’m not sure how we’d easily control for this, but it needs to be addressed.

      I think the scale of the effect is such, however, that there is still something to the graph of doom – poor kids who go to the good schools show systemic improvement over the ones who don’t, for example.

  • Frank

    Why on earth did you reply to Fiona Millar?

    • HookesLaw

      He did not, he wrote an article on the subject. Read his remarks again.

  • anyfool

    Do you not think that the Tory politicians should have used this information to hammer Labour with, the impression they give is that all state schools are bad, the bad state schools are mainly in Labour controlled areas yet not a peep from these chinless wonders from the shires.

  • swatnan

    These Public Schools like Eton and Harrow and St Pauls, should really live up to their name of public schools, and be open to any Tom Damien or Harriet. Working Class children have as much right to wear frock coats and top hats as any Algernon or Gideon or Ppffyfel.

    • HJ777

      Eton College has an explicit policy of moving towards ‘means blind’ admissions and, to some extent, this is already the case. However, Eton is probably the only independent school that will be able to afford to do this in the foreseeable future.

      Of course, if the same amount of state funding was provided to all pupils whichever school they went to, many other independent schools would be able to offer the same.

      • HookesLaw

        Yes and, ‘independent’ not ‘public’.

      • William Haworth

        It’s not just the money, it’s the parents. And it’s not just the parents’ money, either.

    • Fergus Pickering

      They are public schools in the sense that any child can go there. Mick Jagger’s child can go to Eton, though Jagger does not come from the upper class. Of course you have to be able to pay the fees.

    • Kitty MLB

      I should imagine you’d want your leaders to have a good education.
      And working class kids can attend these schools, the Beckham’s
      I am sure will send their kids to such schools. Its all about filthy lucre
      and how much you have.

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