Today is a special day for me. My youngest child has just finished her last A level paper and has walked out of the gates of Parliament Hill School - a great community comprehensive school - for the last time . I want to celebrate everything our local schools have done for our family.
I only slipped into writing about, and campaigning on, education issues by chance. In 2003 in my last year at Downing Street working for the Blairs, I wrote this article
about for the Guardian. I had been a parent and a school governor for ten years at that point and was incensed by a piece written by a fellow journalist explaining why he had felt it necessary to remove his child from one of our popular high performing local primary schools.
Channel Four invited me to make a programme about school choice after I left No 10 and “The Best for My Child” appeared in early 2004. I also started writing the Guardian column which I still do today. In that time I have explored many different aspects of the English school system, argued with a succession of Secretary of States, and fallen out with my own party at times.
But my passionate belief in the benefits of being educated in a local school with children from a wide range of backgrounds remains unshaken. I consider my children very fortunate. They have always been able to walk to school ( one has NEVER worn a school uniform). They have always belonged to a wide community of friends many of whom go back to their days in nursery. They have achieved well academically and, like many thousands of young people educated in comprehensive schools, they are socially aware, tolerant, respectful of difference and loathe snobbery and racism of any sort.
Whenever I write pieces like this, I usually get one of two reactions:
Reaction a) its all very well for you in leafy North London.
Reaction b) well your children would be OK - look at who their parents are.
Both those statements are partly true and should also reassure many other middle class parents that their children can do well in their local schools since home background, parental aspiration and qualifications are hugely important factors in children’s outcomes. But in they ignore a bigger truth which is that in a really mixed inner city school, which all our children’s schools are with FSM figures way above the national average, there are challenges . A wide range of social problems present themselves; teachers and school leaders need to be exceptionally skilled and confident to manage a similarly wide range of abilities
It is also no secret that two of our children’s schools have been through difficult periods. All this has been well documented on this site and elsewhere. But it was the support of the community, active, engaged parents, new inspiring heads and the local authority that helped turn them round.
Try as I may, I can’t see much difference in outcomes between my own children and those of friends who have used selective or private schools. But for me it isn’t just about exams, it is also about what sort of people our children have become and what role their schools have been able to play in our local community.
So Gospel Oak, William Ellis, Parliament Hill and La Swap Sixth Form - I salute you. Our children have been privileged to be educated by you and with a nod to that first Guardian headline, I would still not go private if you paid me.