I should know better than to blog about private education by now. And yet, and yet, and yet…
I realise I’m late to this particular party, but this post over at the always wonderful Toaster in the Shower caught my eye. More specifically, it led me to this column by Arabella Weir in the Guardian, and I thought I’d chip in with my experience of private schooling. To summarise it, ‘My husband and I are sending our kids to their local state school, and you should feel guilty for not doing likewise, because it makes you a superior, secretly-racist middle-class snob’. There are a handful of decent points in there, which I’ll tackle in order, but to start with I think there’s a major irony going unnoticed here. By sending her kids to a state school when she could afford to do otherwise and then writing a column in a national newspaper excoriating private-school parents, isn’t Weir just as guilty of snobbery as the people she’s criticising? Political and educational considerations aside, there’s something in the column’s tone that strikes me as a kind of moralising bourgeois piety that sounds good around a table in Costa among the inevitable gaggle of ‘yummy mummies’, but isn’t good for much else. Frankly, choosing to send your children to a state school and then acting as if it makes you a saintly champion of social equality is about as repugnant to me as sending them to a private school and looking down your nose at the rest of the world, especially when you’re writing about it in the Guardian.
Now then. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not much of a fan of the public schools, but if you’re going to criticise them there are literally thousands of perfectly good reasons, without having to resort to anecdotes and fabrication. And yet:
When it was our turn to decide, my husband and I were in the happy financial position of being able to consider private schools. We did not contemplate that option for long. Neither of us was educated privately and most of the least socially and emotionally capable people I know went to posh schools.
I’m quite sure I’m not in the running for Mister Socially-and-Emotionally-Capable 2010, but all the same this seems to be to be a rather unfair generalisation, predicated on anecdata at that. God knows private schools can be isolating and repressive and so on and so forth, but I sense a classist undertone here. What Ms Weir’s getting at here isn’t even wrong, at least not entirely, but it’s the tone that bothers me, and the implication that private school will necessarily make your nice middle-class child (this is the Guardian, after all) into a Guy Burgess style emotionally-crippled alcoholic is about as accurate on the wider scale as me saying the local comp will turn little Tristram or Sebastian or whatever into a chain-smoking, baseball-cap-wearing moron who runs around stabbing people.
I think it is the Tristramness of the article that bothers me, really. It’s flaunting your choice of not using a privilege most people can’t afford in the first place, and still remaining nicely middle-class (‘Sending your child to a state school does not mean you have to give up your lifestyle’) along the way. ‘Oh, aren’t we good citizens, sending our children to school with the poor! They’re not as bad as they’re made out to be!’. I put it to the House that you, Ms Weir, will never live like common people. And, in addition, that you’ll never do what common people do.
Anyway, aside from all of this, the column’s mostly accurate, if tremendously irritating. The public schools are insular, conformist, horribly middle-England, and so on. But ultimately it’s an individual decision, and characterising your own or your childrens’ education as intrinsically better (morally or academically) than anyone else’s is snobbery, whichever end of the spectrum it’s coming from. In other words, send your kids where you want to, but don’t evangelise for it.
Oh, there was one more thing I wanted to address, from J’s post:
My aunt’s logic behind choosing a state school for her son – after his grandparents offered to pay for a private school – was that she felt the benefits of an independent school were outweighed by the risks of “having him turn into a bender”. I suspect this is not a unique viewpoint, although I wonder what Arabella Weir would think of it.
So, will private school turn your beloved child into a bender? Well, no*. Not unless he was headed that way anyway, in which case it could go one of two ways; a very stereotype-conforming closet case, or them finally snapping under the pressure and becoming incredibly gay. I’ve tried both, and all in all I prefer the second.
And, in fairness, there are advantages to a private education. Regrettably, there are still a great many spheres of life in which something like this will open doors. The quality of education’s good, too. But I still think my original criticisms stand. Basically, do what you want. Just don’t clutter up the Guardian’s op-ed section with your witterings about it. That’s what blogs are for.