This article first appeared Left Futures, on 25th January 2013
Surprise, surprise. Nick Clegg, the man who once said the attainment gap between state and private schools was “corrosive for our society and damaging to our economy”, is considering going private for his own son.
“I’ve never, ever, ever sought to make my children’s education or my children a political football,” he told radio station LBC, before adding that he would not seek to contradict wife Miriam Gonzalez-Durantez on the matter.
He is not the first to make such a statement – politicians are frequently made to squirm on the issue, while in contrast it has become a media fetish for journalists to publicly wring their guilt and dilemmas on the school-choice issue. Nor is he the first one to publicly pass the buck to women. As much as I condemn Diane Abbott for her school choice, it is plain that there are plenty of white men in parliament who have got away with worse.
It is a testimony to the domination of our media by the upper middle class and privately educated that he could get away with these statements. For the vast majority of parents, there is no question of political footballs of any sort, because opting out of your local school in favour of something posh and expensive simply isn’t within their means.
Yet somehow we continue to buy the narrative that politicians must make very human decisions, as parents only, in these situations. Forget the fact that the prospect of this sort of posturing is totally alien to most.
“Like all parents who are sending their children to secondary school in London… as you know there is huge competition for places,” Clegg elaborated. But what is the implication – that his son might not be allocated a place at a state school at all?
But is there not a greater significance – when did it become acceptable for politicians to simply abandon their consciences when their children reach the age of 11? When Abbott opted for the exclusive City of London Boys for her son, the principle objection was hypocrisy. This is a valid charge, but it runs the risk of over-simplification: as if her greatest crime was having condemned Harriet Harman’s decision to use selective schools many years before. It’s the sort of logic that prompted that very same Nick Clegg to give that notorious tuition fees apology – where he apologised for making the promise not to raise fees, rather than apologising for breaking it.
We can’t expect consistency from politicians one hundred per cent of the time. But education of one’s children is a pretty crucial one. Those who are afforded choice in the matter by their circumstances should have the humility to recognise that their ‘burden’ is a result only of privilege and rampant inequality. And it should go without saying that the school is at the heart of the community, and to opt out is a fundamentally selfish act.