Shock! Horror! PM opts to send his child to a state secondary

St Marylebone Concert posterSo, David Cameron is going to send Nancy to state secondary. Maybe even this one, St Marylebone, where my eldest daughter goes. This is the poster for the Orchestra’s tour to Berlin.  Well, he’s only following what everyone else is doing.  Good for him. In my mind, it was always going to be the silver lining in the credit crunch. That after a few years of austerity, the middle classes would start to question the sense of meekly handing over £30,000 per child, per year, to have him or her educated privately, and begin to view the state sector as a serious alternative. The estimated cost of educating two children privately, as reported yesterday, from the age of 4 to 18, costs over half a million pounds. On average. After tax.  Ouch. Add to this the dismaying news of quite a few prep schools in the past were systematically abusing their small charges, and the current news that leading girl’s schools are suffering an epidemic of anorexia, and the whole private school landscape is beginning to look somewhat pockmarked, to put it lightly.

To make matters worse – or better, depending on where you stand – there has been what I call the Tatler Effect. This is the seemingly unimportant, but actually quite crucial fact that the chattering classes’ prime glossy has recently highlighted a substantial list of state schools, primary and secondary, up and down the country, that readers would be jolly pleased if their children got into. Yes, Tatler is a bit of fluff, but this sort of accolade is crucial in order to give state education the status, what one might jokingly call the dinner party cachet, that private schools have enjoyed for so long, and for no particularly good reason,  cruised around with. The notion being simply that if you pay through the nose for it, it’s bound to be good.

Why is the thumbs-up from Tatler important? As someone who has bombed dozens of dinner parties with the casual inquiry,  “So why don’t you send your child to the local primary, then?”,as my husband heads for the nearest exit, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the Tatler stamp is extremely helpful, if only to allow nervous middle class parents to breathe freely as they endorse their local schools by sending little India or bigger Daniel to them.

In terms of the financial crisis, it must be said that for a sector supposedly full of geniuses, private schools have been a bit silly of late, indulging as they have done in a sort of ferocious facilities ‘arms race’ in order to woo parents to part with their cash. Vast sports centres, Grecian-style theatres and five star running tracks have been tacked on so that parents can be sure their children were having ‘the best’. As if education ought to be viewed via a sort of Foxtons-irradiated screen charged with the zeal of Rebecca Adlington. Is an Olympic-sized pool really the key to a first-class education? Discuss.

This real estate beauty parade may be the private sector’s  ultimate downfall; in the last ten years, costs at top private day schools have risen by up to 50%, while incomes for the middle classes have at best plateaued. Of course, now that significant numbers of the well-off are considering state education,  there has been something of a stampede towards the outstanding ones; estate agents have reported an immediate impact on house prices in the areas around the ‘Tatler-endorsed’ schools, and everyone has their tale to tell of queues snaking round the block on interview day, crazy exams and long waiting lists. The school that the Camerons are said to be considering, Greycoat Hospital, is hopelessly oversubscribed. But if the middle classes continue to look towards the state sector, there will be a benefit to all schools, not just a small list of outstanding ones. The whole notion of state option = worst option will start to be eroded, as I believe is starting to happen already. And then at last, we might arrive at a place where there are properly equal opportunities for every child to have an excellent education in this country, where all children – even in the well off areas – are proud to go to their local schools, and where people unthinkingly not only utilise but actively support the state-funded option, much as we do with the NHS. Let’s hope Tatler brings out a supplementary list next year.

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