On the day I joined this paper in 2006, I sat down for a heart-to-heart with our youngest son, who was then 13.
I told him the substantial pay rise that came with my new job meant not only that his mother could give up driving London buses to supplement the family income, but that I could afford to send him to the private school where his two eldest brothers had gone.
How would he feel, I asked, about leaving the local comprehensive, where he’d been since he was 11, and taking up the place he’d been offered at Dulwich College (I’d insisted he took the entrance exam to prove to his brothers he was as bright as them and it was only my poverty that made it impossible to accept the offer at the time).
The boy was horrified. Nothing would persuade him to go to ‘posh school’, he said. He was perfectly happy at his state school (whose old girls, incidentally, include the supermodel Naomi Campbell) and he would rather die than go to Dulwich — alma mater of P.G. Wodehouse, among a host of other illuminati.
How would my son feel, I asked, about leaving the local comprehensive, where he’d been since he was 11, and taking up the place he’d been offered at Dulwich College (pictured)
Well, I’ll put to one side the question of whether or not Dulwich is posh — pausing only to observe that the college, with its huge Asian contingent, teaches a great many more sons of hard-working corner-shopkeepers than scions of the nobility or the idle rich. Indeed, when our boys were there, I didn’t encounter a single adolescent Bertie Wooster or Lord Emsworth among their schoolmates.
So, no, it wasn’t for its social cachet we chose Dulwich for the two eldest boys (son number three went to one of the few remaining state grammars in south London). We sent them because the college was within walking distance of home and renowned worldwide for its wonderful facilities and superb all-round education.
That said, I confess I was relieved by our youngest’s refusal to contemplate going there. Though the fees were modest by the standards of first-rate public schools, we’d found it a tremendous struggle to muster the cash for his brothers — £9,000 a year each out of taxed income, I seem to remember. (They’re still ‘cheap’ today, at up to £20,450 a year for each day pupil!)
We’d had to increase our mortgage five times to keep the eldest two there — not to mention poor Mrs U having to rise at 4am to drive double-decker buses. Now that I had a pay rise, I much looked forward to putting money worries behind us for the first time in our married life.
What is certain is that in expressing his distaste for ‘posh school’, our youngest was voicing a widespread prejudice, shared by a great many class warriors in the Labour Party.
For as long as I can remember, they had been jeering at privately educated politicians and threatening to abolish fee-paying schools (though a remarkable number of them — Diane Abbott springs to mind — were prepared to bury their principles where their own children’s education was concerned). In passing, I should perhaps admit that as the bills for Dulwich came in, there were times when I prayed guiltily that Labour’s zealots would honour their threat and spare me the financial burden that came close to crushing us.
The difference between then and now is that this lot, under the dim-witted Marxist class warrior Jeremy Corbyn, might actually match action to their words if, God forbid, they come to power.
Indeed, it is already Labour policy to abolish private schools’ charity status, which gives school fees exemption from VAT. And never mind the immediate effect would be to bump up already extortionate fees, making these world-beating institutions even more exclusive and putting them far beyond the reach of corner-shopkeepers and jobbing journalists.
What is certain is that in expressing his distaste for ‘posh school’, our youngest was voicing a widespread prejudice, shared by a great many class warriors in the Labour Party
(Another brief diversion: how I long for a contestant on Pointless Celebrities to nominate Eton College as his or her chosen charity. It’s not such an outrageous suggestion, since like so many ancient public schools Eton does excellent work for disadvantaged children as well as toffs, though it would be fascinating to see how the choice went down with the studio audience!)
But one group, Labour Against Private Schools (Laps), now wants to go even further than the official party policy of pricing the aspirant middle classes out of the country’s best schools, and making them the exclusive preserve of the super-rich.
As its call-sign @AbolishEton suggests, Laps wants to turn all fee-paying institutions into state schools. To that end, it is circulating a motion for Labour’s conference in September which would commit the party to integrating every fee-paying institution into the state system.
If I understand Laps correctly, it seems to think the principle purpose of schools is not education, as you or I might understand the word, but social engineering. If it’s impossible for everyone’s children to have a Rolls-Royce education, the thinking appears to be, then nobody’s children should have it.
My fear is the Laps campaign — backed by the unlamented former party leader Ed Miliband — may sound a resonant chord with Mr Corbyn’s new-look Labour Party
Leave aside that even in the comprehensive sector, the children of the rich benefit most — through selection not by ability but by catchment area, since the best state schools tend to be in the most expensive parts of the country. My fear is the Laps campaign — backed by the unlamented former party leader Ed Miliband, whose crass constitutional reforms put extremist egalitarians in the driving seat — may sound a resonant chord with Mr Corbyn’s new-look Labour Party.
Before we know it, we may have a government committed to the wanton destruction of Britain’s most successful schools, as measured by achievement in any number of fields, from academia and science to sports and the performing arts.
Certainly, the Independent Schools Council has taken the threat seriously enough to write to MPs and Labour councillors in more than two dozen of the areas that would be most affected by the nationalisation of private schools, pointing out the hugely damaging implications for local authority budgets and class sizes.
For example, if Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer’s local council had to pick up the bill for educating all 7,800 private school pupils in his constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, it would have to find an extra £52.3 million a year — a whopping 37.3 per cent of its budget. Primary school class sizes would rise to 37 pupils, with ten more in every lesson.
But while these considerations are hugely important, I reckon the most powerful argument for preserving schools such as Eton, Dulwich and my own alma mater, Westminster, is that by almost every criterion, they are simply the best — recognised as such and imitated all over the world.
The way to improve our education system — and thereby to enrich the entire country — is not to abolish the most successful schools but to improve the state sector. That means learning from the methods and ethos of the private sector, with its emphasis on discipline, uniform, selection by aptitude and, above all, its high expectations of all pupils.
Many state schools already do this, with impressive results. I am happy to report that they include my youngest son’s school, which was rated outstanding at its inspection in 2014.
But, let’s face it, throwing all the state sector’s eggs into the non-selective comprehensive basket was hardly an unqualified success, was it? Indeed, you can date the decline in Britain’s social mobility almost exactly to the beginning of the class war against selective grammars.
But I’ll end on an optimistic note. Thanks to a remarkable new digital polling service, findoutnow (full disclosure — a lunchtime drinking companion works for the company), I can exclusively reveal the country is overwhelmingly in favour of retaining private schools.
In a survey conducted for me yesterday, which drew 18,584 responses, a resounding 73.77 per cent of those who expressed a preference answered ‘No’ to my question: ‘Should private schools be abolished?’ Only 22.23 per cent said ‘Yes’.
The survey reinforces my belief in the wisdom and fair-mindedness of the British people. We’re surely not daft enough — are we? — to hand Mr Corbyn’s hate-filled class warriors the chance to turn their dreams of a society of equals into equal poverty for one and all?