Education Jul 11 2010

David Cameron is wrong about London state schools

So David Cameron claims to be ‘terrified’ of the secondary school choices available to him as a parent living in London. He needs to get out and about a bit.

I must declare an interest. I am chair of governors of two London schools, I was educated in London state schools and have three children who have all been to their nearest state schools (primary and secondary). One even went to the same university as the Prime Minister and read the same degree, without having to go to Eton first. All my friends’ children are or have been educated in London state schools. All are passionate about their schools and the education, both academic and social, they received there.

Why? Because the gloomy picture, of neglected, underachieving middle class kids in chaotic classes surrounded by knife wielding peers is a travesty of the truth and a  figment of the media’s, and David Cameron’s, imagination.

Children, like ours, who have been to, or still attend, London state schools, are the lucky ones – I would go so far as to say privileged. Most can walk to school with their friends and don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to travel miles, or join the flotilla of middle class small ‘tanks’ that transport an unlucky minority out of their local communities every day.

They mix with other children from a wide range of ethnic and social backgrounds (all my children still have the friends they met at nursery) which gives them a sense of belonging to a wider society and an understanding of what the real world is like.

There are undoubtedly differences in the type, rather than quality, of education offered in state rather than private schools. Class size, for a start, and levels of pressure too. If you want your children to be sitting entrance tests from the age of three, with hours of homework from the age of five, then the state sector may not be for you. But then London private schools are also highly pressured and competitive, with a nasty tendency to ask parents to make other arrangements for their children if they are not making the grade.

Those of us who would pay not to send our children to private schools know that education is not just about exam results, it is about values and what sort of people we want our children to be. One of the most moving moments for me in all my children’s’ education was my eldest son’s first report from his local comprehensive.

Amidst his many academic achievements he was commended by several teachers for the care he took in helping children less able than himself. I hope he got that partly from his parents, but I also know that a strong influence was the ethos of his primary school, which was by no means at the top of the league tables, but put a lot of emphasis on care, responsibility to others and equal opportunities, something which is common in many state schools.

Most London state schools are calm, orderly environments but in a truly mixed inner city comprehensive the going can get tough because London schools deal with an increasing  range of social problems. But the skills which come from negotiating those tricky situations are skills for life and result in initiative, resilience and a social ease which is often lacking in children educated in the private sector.

And never forget that London fee-paying schools, with which London state schools are invariably compared, are socially and academically selective, which is why they get better results. What would happen if you took those handpicked elites out of their little enclaves and put them in to their local state schools?

My 20 years of observing the paths of children from broadly similar backgrounds, in both state and private schools, suggests that they do would do just as well. And that is not just a hunch. Recent research by Professor Dylan Wiliam from the Institute of Education, based on international comparisons of pupil performance, suggests that once social background, the ‘halo effect’ of the peer group and class sizes in the private sector are taken into account, teachers in the state sector are delivering the same quality of teaching in classes of 25 that their private school counterparts are delivering in classes of 13.

David Cameron has an agenda of course, to terrify parents into believing that his party’s reckless policy of giving state funds to individual groups of parents to set up their own ‘free schools’ is justified.

But he is wrong. London state schools have improved much faster than schools in other parts of the country over the past ten years, thanks to the investment of the last government, much of it in the Building Schools for the Future programme so derided by his Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, and also thanks to the tireless work of educationalists like Sir Tim Brighouse.

There is every chance that the Cameron children, coming from the sort of supportive, aspirant home background they do, with two graduate parents, would do perfectly well in their local state schools, schools which would also benefit from the presence of high profile, champions from the world of politics.

With a bit of luck he won’t be Prime Minister by the time his eldest child (now six) has to go through the secondary transfer process. And there is a very real chance that his party’s policies, not just ending BSF, but creating unnecessary free schools and encouraging the outstanding to opt out and become academies, will seriously damage what is now  a flourishing, well resourced network of vibrant inner city schools, which  have the confidence of many local parents.

In the meantime, he should go and look at what is really happening. He might learn something, not least how to speak from evidence rather than prejudice.

If you want to join a campaign to support  local schools, e-mail me at

12 Responses to “David Cameron is wrong about London state schools”

  1. Laura says:

    Having worked in inner London state schools since I began teaching I would echo everything said here. Unfortunately many people in the media commenting on schools were privately educated and so have no realistic understanding of the state sector. They believe to the core that private school inevitably bestows 'benefit' to a child without understanding what it takes away. Any educated middle class family can shower their child with extra literature, intelligent conversation, social networks and extra-curricular activities – which are the main 'benefits' people talk about when discussing private schools. But if you segregate your child from the rest of society you don't teach them empathy, negotiation, tolerance or patience. You also role-model that it's okay to pay your way out of responsibility to your local community, and can unintentionally make the child believe that they are a different 'sort' of person to the 93% of the population education in local state schools. This is precisely why David Cameron has ended up 'terrified' of state schools. His expensive education has somehow led him to feel ill-at-ease with normality. It is beyond me why anyone would want to do that to their own child.

    I do also believe that some aversion to state schools, particularly in cities, is rooted in an unconscious racism. I encourage many of my private-then-Oxford-educated friends to come and work in my school for a day. Most are terrified, especially when they realise they may be the only white face in a room. But, over a day, they realise that regardless of different languages, abilities, religions and cultures we are all human. And while I still may not be able to convince them to send their own children to private school (“oh but I couldn't take away the privilege from my own child”) I do think they see that notions of being 'terrified' of state schools comes from their own prejudices and bad experiences (usually of being beaten up by state school kids on the way home from their schools) rather than reality.

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  3. Polly says:

    All you state is theoretically correct BUT in practice….I just think you are living in cloud cuckooland love. In my area in west London we can't get into the good state school because of the huge numbers of migrants moving to flats nearby to get places (don't blame 'em btw). The other local comp has kids climbing out of windows and swearing at teachers and one pupil charged with the stabbing of a local boy at another school earlier this year. I would rather break the bank than throw my 4 kids to the mess that is the state school system. There IS another point of view and to brush it aside as middle class neurotic parents 'not really gettting it' or being too snooty to mix is as narrow minded as you suggest others might be.

  4. Yes, you make a very important point about private schools. I would go further, I would say that they are more vicious than state schools and that Cameron should be more terrified of sending his children to these Darwinian institutions. There's a great deal of paranoia about state schools that is entirely unjustified. Parents really need to look carefully at them before making judgements. I wonder if Cameron has walked around these local schools and taken a really good look for himself? I suspect his comments are just based on prejudice, as are many of his educational policies.

  5. anpa2001 says:

    Excellent comment Laura, totally agree with you. Private education isn't 'better' and there is a rascist element to many people's rhetoric about lack of school choice in London. It's not just privately educated parents who have these prejudices though, there is quite a wide ranging mostly middle class obsession about perceived lack of choice over schools and perceived poor quality of state schools.

  6. Anna says:

    Having watched the children of friends buckle under the enormous strain of competitive exams from an early age, and witnessed the way their childhood has been systematically stripped from them due to vast amounts of homework from as young as seven, I find the prospect of private education chilling. One mother actually said to me that she wanted her son to 'make friends with the kinds of people he will know later in the foreign office'. Her son was five at the time. We live in an increasingly polarised society, where some middle class people are being frightened into shunning their local school playgrounds in favour of a handpicked, white aspirant ghetto. My son attends our local state secondary school, having first attended our local state primary. He can talk to anyone, is at ease with everyone regardless of age, gender, colour, or creed. He understands difference, but he does not judge it. This provides the best possible basis for an integrated, tolerant society. I am so grateful to our local schools for this tremendous gift. Cameron's comments betray sly disingenuity and bigotry and are deeply offensive to the majority of people in London who use state education. Eton has clearly not equipped him to run such a diverse and class ridden society !

  7. Fiona Millar says:

    Hi Ed
    None of my children has ever had private tuition. I think it is the job of the school to educate them and have always preferred to use the governor route to seek improvement if I felt things weren’t going as well as they should. However I know that private tuition does distort the exam and test results of some state schools and creates enormous unfairness where selective entry tests are still used – another reason to oppose it!

  8. Ed West says:

    Fiona, doesn't a lot of success in state school depends on being able to afford tuition? I ask as someone who went to a state school but whose parents did pay for a maths tutor when I was struggling – so I think there's nothing wrong with it. Can you confirm that none of your children has ever received private tuition of any kind?

  9. Cassandra says:

    Ed West, your comment about people in state schools possibly having private tutors is not relevant to the argument. Having taught in both sectors, I can tell you that extra, paid-for tuition is by no means confined to state schools. The important distinction between the two sectors is that private schools concentrate massive resources – social and intellectual as well as financial – upon already wealthy and privileged children, whereas a state school with a balanced intake helps to distribute these resources among the less wealthy and privileged. This is why NONE of the countries regularly at the top of international comparison tables has a strong private system. Britain, with its massively segregated system of schooling, rarely manages better than 13th. Cameron's children will have enough financial, social and intellectual capital to thrive in almost any school, as long as they are able to make friends and be happy. If Cameron chooses a state school, many of the parents of his children's friends will follow suit, so there won't be a problem of friendships, and what those children will bring to their school will be of immense value to other, less privileged children. To make such a choice would also be a concrete expression of Cameron's idea of “the big society.” Wouldn't it?

  10. Laura says:

    Polly, I understand entirely your point of view. Our own children are more important than anything and the thought that you might put them into a challenging situation is difficult. I get that, and I say that as someone teaches in East London schools that sound very much like “the other local comp” you mention.

    BUT – there are three important considerations. Firstly, just because a school charges doesn't automatically make it a safe place. A great deal of bullying, snobbery, competitive pressure and – interestingly – drug-taking and dealing, goes on in private schools. The vested interests of parents and the school meant that such things are effectively covered up and not talked about around the dinner-party circuit. Secondly, the financial pressure parents put themselves under for fees can affect the time spent with children and positive family relations. And thirdly, I worry that the message one sends by removing kids from 'the other local comp' is that some people are better, more-deserving and/or should be educated 'away from' those “others” who swear and jump out of windows. For me, showing children how to live with all types of people is hugely important and – even in the difficult schools where i have worked – that is what happens. In one class I may have students with all levels of English, all abilities (and disabilities) and all social classes. But we are united by the fact that we are all neighbours in a local community and we are there to learn, rather than allowing ourselves to get sucked into intolerance of difference. It's for this reason that I never think of state school as something people are 'lumped with', it is an ethical choice with great social benefit for children.

    I don't for one moment think parents send their children to private school because they are narrow-minded. Most parents are intensely interested in and careful about their children's lives. But I do think many people buy an education because they think they will feel less guilty when their child runs into difficulty or, even worse, they believe their child will never run into difficulty at private school. From where I stand, it's a mistaken belief that can lead to greater prejudices and jealousies rather than social tolerance.

  11. Polly says:

    Laura, I agree with you more than I can express here. The greater good is SO important but not AS important to me as my kids' education. I make no apology for being a mum first and a citizen second. I'm not scared by my kids facing challenges at all. They do and they will …but I am furious that the scope for that will now be limited as they move from the state sector to private for formal learning/educational reasons and NOT in order to avoid 'mixing' or being 'challenged' as you suggest. Probably my mistake for not being clear enough in my original rant : )
    Your points about private schools are obvious, I don't for one minute suggest they are trouble-free. Kids are as susceptible there to bullying/drugs etc just as much as in a state environment. That's not why I choose private education, you expect those problems everywhere.
    Your point about financial pressure simply highlights my frustration, that in my view I am driven from state choice when I have already paid the taxes. (Migrants to my community …perfectly nice and lovely people….have been here sometimes just 6 months and I have paid taxes for 25 years, but they queue-jump and then my kids can't get in to the good local comp. We went from 10th on the list to 45th in 3 weeks as migrants flat-hopped to get their kids in, and I don't blame them, I would do the same in their position). So you see, my hand is forced. I will not send them to a state school with a poor reputation, which is the only option left.
    I resent working more hours and having less time with them…believe me, I wouldn't do it unless I thought I HAD to. I am talking about learning here. I have kids bursting with questions and excitement about books and museums. They go to a state primary and meet kids from all sorts of families.
    It's really important that my kids learn how to live with 'others' who jump out of windows, but NOT at the expense of their learning. I hate the message you rightly identify I'm sending to my kids now that they are somehow different and may be more deserving. We love our community and are involved in all aspects of it from Beavers to Cubs/football touraments/judo etc. We live and work with everyone here (and one of my kids is disabled incidentally). We are neighbours and I love your phrase 'the intolerance of difference'…I guess that's why I am so worked up about this. I just wish the liberal fascists wouldn't grab the high moral ground and for once could acknowlege this isn't a black and white issue, it's grey, grey all over.
    It's really not, in my case, about buying an education to feel 'less guilty about difficulties', it's about giving them a decent chance and not having those chances harpooned by the overwhelming needs of others. Middle class kids matter…and we wouldn't be articulate/tax paying middle class folk if our forebears had not pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and a s p i r e d. Education is everything to our family, my father taught in the state sector for 35 years but it looks now like I'll have to pay to get anything half decent.
    Thanks for reading.

  12. Fiona Hook says:

    “Children, like ours, who have been to, or still attend, London state schools, are the lucky ones – I would go so far as to say privileged”

    Yes, Ms Millar. You can afford housing in the catchment area of William Ellis where your son went. Those whose children have to go to South Camden Community would regard that as very privileged.

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