National politics

Will Self’s private pain

I was struck by Will Self’s hand-wringing in today’s Evening Standard over sending his child to a private school. He follows in the footsteps of a long line of Labour figures who think that the bog standard comprehensive should provide an education for all but their own little darlings. He says he is not a hypocrite:

No, I don’t feel hypocritical just angry. Angry that after more than seven fat years, London schools are in a worse state than ever, angry that those who have not must bear the brunt of it.

At least he has gained the insight that Gordon Brown’s nice decade spending splurge has achieved rather less than advertised.

Old leftie Self is more in line with Gordon Brown’s thinking than he imagines though. In his 2006 budget speech Brown said:

We know the educational benefits of more individual attention, small group teaching and tutoring, and that they are easier to get where the overall teacher pupil ratio is low.

In private schools there is one teacher for every nine pupils compared with one teacher for every sixteen in state secondary schools.

To secure better school results we have improved the pupil teacher ratio and doubled the money spent per year for the typical pupil from £2,500 to £5,000.

But this figure of £5,000 per pupil still stands in marked contrast to average spending per pupil in the private sector of £8,000 a year.

Our long-term aim should be to ensure for 100% of our children the educational support now available to just 10%.

So to improve pupil teacher ratios and the quality of our education, we should agree an objective for our country that stage by stage, adjusting for inflation, we raise average investment per pupil to today’s private school level.

So Brown wants everyone to have the equivalent of a private education provided by the state so Self is not a hypocrite he is merely jumping the queue.

This is one of the dumber things that Brown ever said.

Firstly, he was comparing a private sector that on the whole consciously provides a premium service with a free system for all. If we had universal private education there would be a whole class of “bog standard” private schools that would provide excellent education for a modest sum. This is what Chris Woodhead, controversial ex-Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, is trying to achieve with Cognita Schools. See also Telegraph article here.

Secondly, with the credit crisis in full effect this goal, unrealistic at the best of times, looks further off.

Thirdly, and finally, as soon as the state ends up spending equivalent amounts to the private sector directly on each child then most parents will scream “give me that cash to spend in the private sector”. This is effectively what the Conservatives are offering.

Unwittingly perhaps the Tories echo Brown. They say:

We will undertake a long-term programme to close the educational gap between the fortunate and the forgotten.

Whilst the Tories are not saying that they are going to privatise all state schools they have been impressed with the Swedish model of state funding going with each child to independent schools. Here is what Michael Gove, Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said about the Swedish model at the party conference last month:

We would follow the example of social democratic Sweden.

Where parents choose schools instead of schools choosing parents.

As we outline to day in our social reform plan – and as you may have seen in the film we showed earlier – Sweden has driven up standards in all its schools by making one crucial change.

Any parent can take the money the Government currently spends on their child’s education and take that money to the school they want.

Parents who have been unhappy with existing local authority schools have found new schools have been set up to give them a better alternative.

Nine hundred new schools have been established – by foundations, charities, co-operatives and others – and they have attracted pupils by offering better discipline and higher standards. These schools have gone out of their way to give parents what they want.

Imagine it – state schools leafletting your road – selling themselves to parents on the basis of their great teaching and the superb pastoral care they offer.

The consequence in Sweden has been not just higher standards in the new schools but higher standards in all schools as every school has to do its best to satisfy parents.

Competition has ensured that schools which were once failing are now magnets for parents who had no hope.

Conservative means have guaranteed progressive ends.

I suspect the Tories will deliver the education that Self wants for his own child rather faster than Brown will.

3 replies on “Will Self’s private pain”

I have no criticisms of Self whatsoever. He has done the right thing for his child.

I want the state to do right by every child whose parents can’t afford to go private. That means allowing parents to choose schools and giving them real spending power rather than the current situation where parents take what they are given in spite of paying royally for the poor service they get. The Tories’ plans to follow the Swedish model by expanding academies, allowing people to set up their own schools and allowing parents to carry the Dedicated Schools Grant with them might achieve these objectives.


As an ex-teacher, ex-school governor whose parents were both teachers I feel secondary school education in this country lost its way many years ago.

The late 1940s/1950s model of Grammar, Secondary Modern, and Technical Colleges model might of worked if adequate funding had been found and sustained for Secondary Moderns and Technical Colleges; and the pupil flow between all three types of schools to cope with ‘late developers’ had been mandated throughout the country.

Comprehensive Schools seemed like the ‘right’ idea for quite a while from an egalitarian point of view but it has not consistently worked out in practice. Allowing secondary schools to grow to over 1.600 pupits is a bad idea, and more smaller schools are clearly what’s needed.

I prophesied the existence of Microsoft and MacDonalds sponsored schools as a joke over 10 years ago. Now it appears that Windows and Big Mac Academies are just around the corner.


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