A privileged education

Fiona Millar's picture
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.


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Toby Young's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 14:45

You left out Reaction c) It's all very well for you – you can afford to supplement what your children are learning at the local community school by hiring private tutors.

I know you maintain that none of your children have ever received private tuition of any kind – that's right, isn't it? – but Melissa Benn has admitted that at least one of hers has.

Be interested to know how Melissa responds to c). And what's your position on it?

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 23/06/2012 - 14:07

My children have never had private tuition but since the subject has been raised I do find it fascinating how many parents in the private sector I know also pay for their children to have private tutors. Can the teaching in this sector really be that bad ?

Oswald Armstrong's picture
Sat, 23/06/2012 - 15:23

More likely to be the genetics, particularly if they are paying tax, school fees and for private tuition.


Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 23/06/2012 - 22:37

Perhaps Toby might like to tell us how many pupils at WLFS are privately tutored? Or is the teaching there so universally excellent for each child, irrespective of background and ability, that he has effectively removed any need for introducing "choice", which is the rationale behind him being given his school in the first place?

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 14:55

Thanks for this Fiona. It's very important to hear these sorts of stories that show the great work that our local schools are doing; as you know, your story has been very important to me in that it, in part, led to me changing my mind about state education and taking my son out of his private school. He has subsequently been educated at a brilliant LA inner-city primary and a recently converted academy, which is non-selective, which has struggled in previous years. The education he's received has been brilliant, academically, socially and psychologically. Unlike the private school he went to, he hasn't encountered bullying of any sort. It's also important that he has now come to know everyone in the area, mixing with all different social classes and ethnicities. He has learnt what the world is really about and has none of the snobberies that afflict our "ruling class" in the cabinet; at eleven, he's currently reading Owen Jones's brilliant Chavs -- the demonisation of the working classes with interest, having been pushed to read challenging material by his English teacher! So I salute you and your children and wish them all the best of luck!

FJ Murphy's picture
Fri, 23/11/2012 - 22:33

I am sorry that your son suffered bullying at his private school, understand why you moved him to a state school and am glad that he is thriving. This traffic is two way, however, and your anecdote is of limited importance. By the way, had he watched Question Time recently, he would have seen how rude and arrogant Owen Jones can be.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 15:05

I think you're saying, and I agree, that we actually DO see a difference in 'outcome', if we can dally around the meaning of 'outcome'. The tolerant, socially aware, engaged 'outcome'. Outward looking, not inward. Socially very able, inclusive not exclusive. Self motivated, not expecting it to be handed to them. Yes, the educational outcomes are similar but the personal ones seem, in my wholly biased opinion, much better. OK, the school trips have been less glamourous. There have been no field trips to the Caribbean. And yes, that IS the stuff we can provide (though we didn't). I have never needed to supplement with private tutors, as the teaching at my son's state comprehensive has been exceptional. And by the way, there is a Reaction d), which I have had said to me: 'It's OK for you. You're political.' Yep. Really that. So laden with subtext I could barely respond, though of course now I could write an essay about it.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 15:31

tolerant, socially aware, engaged ... Outward looking, not inward. Socially very able, inclusive not exclusive. Self motivated, not expecting it to be handed to them.

You mean they've all turned out like Old Etonians? Pull the other one. Let's be honest, an uncomfortably large percentage of out state school alumni are in and out of Crown Court, frazzling their few remaining brain cells with crack or sitting cross-legged at the door of Tesco's asking for spare change.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 15:41

Ha ha. OK, I'll take the bait. I don't think that describes Old Etonians at all. My point was, and I'm sorry if I didn't express it clearly, that is the DIFFERENCE between them and Old Etonians (other private schools are applicable). And I don't think a 'large percentage' of state OR private are as you describe. Think that's nonsense.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 15:42

Old Etonians of course have never drank to excess, squandered their (inherited) fortunes. Neither have any of them consorted with prostitutes nor been photographed alongside a line of baking powder prior to entering politics.

Deprivation, abuse and poverty leads to hopelessness and helplessness and a life of chaos and crime. Not state schools. What excuses do pubic schoolboys have?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 17:08

Ricky - sometimes your comments are thoughtful (ie on the subjunctive thread - the poem you quoted was hauntingly beautiful). However, at other times you slip into tabloid-speak and generalised, sensational sneering such as the one above.

You say that there are probably fewer ex-pupils from Eton or any other independent school who are convicted of crimes and addicted to drugs. That's because at the first sign of trouble these schools can off-load their problems into the state system.

Some wrongdoing isn't a criminal offence but a moral one, eg MP's expenses (I think the taxpayer paid for Gove's expensive patio furniture, for example). And are tax-avoiders more likely to be privately or state educated?

However, we risk going off-thread. The point Fiona is making is that her children have thrived in the state sector. So have millions of other children despite all the rhetoric about broken systems and failing state education.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 16:24

I don’t think a ‘large percentage’ of state OR private are as you describe. Think that’s nonsense.

30% of males under 30 have criminal records. That's the national figure, and it seems logical that it would be higher than that in inner city areas. 75% of those prosecuted for rioting had previous convictions and 83% "previous contact with the Police".

I doubt many of them were OEs.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 17:20

I agree with you, Janet. I echo Fiona's positive feelings and experiences in the state sector, is my ultimate point. That they have a tough job is indisputable. The big shame for my children and millions of others is that they are judged before they even get out there.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 16:41

You seem to want to say that state schools produce rioters and criminals. That's not my experience, or my view. Would you be as quick to say that private schools produce corporate criminals?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 17:01

It's a numbers thing, Jenny. The state system is still failing to get around 50% of its kids 5 decent GCSEs including M&E, thereby leaving them barely employable in a modern knowledge economy. That's bound to have consequences on the street.

Sure some kids do okay in the state system - particularly if they start out at one of those twee 1FE primaries where 80% of parents have household incomes that now disqualify them from claiming child allowance that always top their borough league tables.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 15:59

"80% of parents have household incomes that now disqualify them from claiming child allowance"!!!!

I don't think we have any of those in the north. Are there any in the south?

Toby Young's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 16:10

"Deprivation, abuse and poverty." That describes life at a typical English public school to a tee, Allan. Haven't you read Orwell's 'Such, Such Were the Days'?

Here's a quote:

“It was partly the prospect of actual physical discomfort that made the thought of going back to school lie in one’s breast like a lump of lead during the last few days of the holidays. A characteristic memory of St Cyprian’s is the astonishing hardness of one’s bed on the first night of term. Since this was an expensive school, I took a social step upwards by attending it, and yet the standard of comfort was in every way far lower than in my how home, or, indeed, than it would have been in a prosperous working-class home.”

The thing that troubled Orwell the most was the squalor – the dirt, the germs, the stench.

He goes on:

“At almost every point some filthy detail obtrudes itself. For example, there were the pewter bowls out of which we had our porridge. They had overhanging rims, and under the rims there were accumulations of sour porridge, which could be flaked off in long strips. The porridge itself, too, contained more lumps, hairs and unexplained black things than one would have thought possible, unless someone were putting them there on purpose. It was never safe to start on that porridge without investigating it first. And there was the slimy water of the plunge bath – it was 12 or 15 feet long, the whole school was supposed to go into it every morning, and I doubt whether the water was changed at all frequently – and the always-damp towels with their cheesy smell: and, on occasional visits in the winter, the murky sea-water of the local Baths, which came straight in from the beach and on which I once saw floating a human turd.”

As Evelyn Waugh said in Decline and Fall: "Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is only the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums … who find prison so soul destroying.”

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 16:39

I used to walk daily by Rugby School and was terrified that Flashman would rush out, grab me and roast me over a fire. However, I think conditions at public schools have improved since the days of Thomas Hughes, Orwell and Waugh. But what about Connolly's comment (which uses the subjunctive - it's popping up everywhere)?

"Were I to deduce any system from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence."

David Attenborough, talking about his education, said he felt sorry for the young graduate with his own silver cutlery (complete with monogram) because that young man had been sheltered in a privileged cocoon.

So, are too many of our politicians insular and suffering from arrested development?

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 17:32

It may well describe life in a public school decades ago, Toby but when Prince Charles whines on about how ghastly, cold and frugal Gordonstoun was, sympathy ebbs away when you remember he returned home to the splendour of castle, palaces and servants. The "deprivation" was just "character building" for the upper classes. Social deprivation and poverty of the type caused by, say, Osborne's stupid austerity budget is permanent, with no end of term respite.

Fiona Millar is talking about a different and far more valuable type of character building, built on daily interaction with people from all types of background. Not everyone fetishises the public school experience, Toby, apart from perhaps the repressed public school type whose boarding school "deprivation" has instilled masochistic tendencies in later life. Is this a caricature? Perhaps, but so is the drugged-crazed beggar of Ricky Tart's equally fetid imagination.

I'm not sure whether we should feel sorry for you that your beastly socialist parents did not give you the public school experience you hankered after or whether we should be angry that this deprivation appears to have informed your ideology. The dirt, germs and stench of la vie de Boheme was much more authentically depicted by more imaginative and rebellious artists such as Rimabud, Baudelaire, Genet, The French are just so much more hedonistic than the uptight English toffs surely? Drunk, coked out of his head, Rimbaud produced great poems of lasting influence. He didn't just get checked out of members clubs then boast about it afterwards.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 18:25

'Such, such were the days' is a blinding piece of writing, I agree with you there, but underlying Orwell's critique is his abhorrence not only at the physical conditions but the social snobbery permeating the system; something that hasn't changed...

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 19:16

Have you been to see 'Posh' Francis. I would really recommend to you and anyone else who wants to understand where our current political leaders are coming from.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 19:33

Never was a truer word sung than by Phil jupitus in his "Big Society" show ........“Claimants and shirkers / Manual workers / We’ll hang em by the old school tie!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 18:50

I haven't seen it but my son is desperate to see it, but I've been told it's not suitable for 11-year-olds, even ones reading Owen Jones!!! I will certainly try and see it soon!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 17:15

Ricky - re your comment above about the state system "failing" those children who don't achieve 5 GCSEs C and above including Maths and English. GCSE C used to be an exam showing above-average ability. If it's supposed to be the level achievable by all then it becomes nothing better than a basic school-leavers' certificate. That's not rising standards - that's dumbing down.

And if the day comes when the state system "succeeds" in getting all children their five "good" GCSEs, then that will be the day that politicians start carping that the goal should be at least a grade A.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 17:36

Indeed, Janet.

Since you're fond of first half of 20C writers, I offer you this;

Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.C.S. Lewis

Jenny Landreth's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 17:39

Anyone want to point out to Ricky that heaven doesn't exist, or shall I?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 19:51

I might be standing in the gutter, but I'm looking at the stars. (Apologies to Oscar Wilde).

Actually if you aim at heaven with a clod of earth, it's likely to come back down on top of you.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 19:02

We'll see. But one thing's for sure: purgatory certainly exists for those unlucky enough to get into one of the smarter comps reserved for the children of New Labour apparatchiki, the O'Farrell Comedians' Academy and so forth.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 20:16

Wow. I'm not a regular commenter on here, and I'm beginning to realise why. I'm sure that's a very smart comment, but the meaning eludes me. What do you mean? It sounds like a very directed personal attack - what's your reasoning? Personal experience?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 09:25


I really cannot see how you can take that as a personal attack - it doesn't even mention you - and I have no idea where this model comprehensive that your son attended is.

If you want to see what a 'personal attack' looks like, check out what Allan Beavis has to say to Toby Young higher up this thread. Here's a taster:

I’m not sure whether we should feel sorry for you that your beastly socialist parents did not give you the public school experience you hankered after....

That's personal.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 09:37

Toby Young has made a career out of his personal trials and tribulations and has opened up his private life and musings in print over a couple of decades. He has taken unfair and privileged advantage of his columns and blogs to mount personal attacks against his opponents and even schools, usually in the most virulent and irrational way and, in my opinions, for political and personal gain. Toby Young doesn't need defending from what you call "personal" attacks when he has made a living out of publicising his personal life and making jibes at people he dislikes.

Mike Marduk's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 18:52

Everyone must, surely, share the delight of every happy pupil successfully completing a good education, state or private.

The point, though, is that, in this most excellent, democratic and liberal country, compulsion the enemy, there exists the freedom to choose.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 19:30

Fiona, thank you for your contribution to the debate about state education and also for your work in governance and consultations.

I hope you're not intending your involvement with education to stop here.

I am very grateful for my state education. I understand society as it is and that makes it easy for me to be with and to support and encourage people from all walks of life in all sorts of difficult situations. I wouldn't want it any other way. I've no idea how I would have benefited from going to a private school - I can only see the many important skills and insights I would have missed out on acquiring. Those messy lessons which were disrupted due to behavioural issues were the places where I learned these things.

Toby I had some piano lessons as a kid although my parents could only afford to send me to the old lady who was pretty much blind rather deaf and didn't notice that I played the same piece every week and charged 50p a lesson because she only did it to have people to gossip to. I also had a couple of private tuition lesson for my STEP papers. However I've no idea why this would be of any interest to you or what relevance it has to anything, except perhaps to warn you that if we ever meet it's not a good idea to ask me to play the piano.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 19:57

I started comparing the new KPI's on the Dept of Educ websites which includes average pay per teacher, spend per child and pupil/teacher ratio.

Funny how the first two financial items are usually missing from the tables for many of the new academies ?
..Parliament Hill teacher average pay £46k with 12.4 pupils per teacher and is good/outstanding school ......however with nearly same spend per pupil (£7101) the "satisfactory" James Hornby School Basildon can only pay their teachers £37.8 k and have 18.5 pupils/teacher. ....

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 20/06/2012 - 20:09

It really is time the DFE started to publish this information for academies. The same information should be available for ALL schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 08:40

Jenny - reply to post above re your perception of being personally attacked. Please keep contributing - don't be put off by tabloid-inspired rhetoric. LSN is lightly moderated which means that posters are expected to abide by certain unwritten rules (eg being polite, reasonable, realising that bullying is unacceptable and so on).

Ricky is a regular contributor on LSN. Sometimes he has something useful to say but on other occasions he dashes off diatribes full of sensationalised generalisations which pander to stereotypes.

Please keep contributing. New voices are always welcome.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 08:58

I'm a reader here more than a commenter, like lots of people I suspect. I didn't feel personally attacked, I felt it was an unpleasant personal attack on John O'Farrell and I couldn't, try as I might, unravel what Ricky was trying to say, but certainly got his general tone of loathing. I took the bait (again) because I find it difficult to let that kind of broad unwarranted ill-informed nonsense stand. Like lots of people, I suspect! Thanks for your welcoming note, though.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 09:02

Hi Jenny

Janet is right. DO please contribute. This forum welcomes everyone and it is always great to hear new voices and opinions.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Thu, 21/06/2012 - 10:52

Ricky: There isn't a 'reply' option on your last comment to me so I have to post it here, sorry. I didn't feel it was a personal attack on me, but on John O'Farrell. Your sentence construction is such that your meaning is totally unclear, though the general loathing is obvious. What do you mean?

Adrian Elliott's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 11:23

Jenny, I suspect you are also posting under your real name as I do and most other regulars on this site do.
'Ricky Tarr' is a character in John Le Carre's novels.

On a site like this, where most people,whichever side of the argument they are on are open about themselves, it may be best simply to ignore those who aren't.

Jenny Landreth's picture
Fri, 22/06/2012 - 13:00

That, Adrian, is excellent advice and thank you for it. It hadn't occurred to me to use a pseudonym, as I tend not to say stuff I need to hide from! Cheers.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sat, 23/06/2012 - 20:47

aaah so Ricky Tarr is a pseudonym....a bit like "spartacus" or "jake"

Tim Ottevanger's picture
Fri, 07/09/2012 - 19:23

Those who use pseudonyms haven't the guts to reveal themselves. Toby Young may be objectionable but at least we know he is real.

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