Miliband's miracle carries a high price

Shereen Pandit

So school standards minister David Miliband wants to see greater parental involvement in children's education. He should have met this woman I bumped into recently, who told me she would have sold a kidney had she not been able to afford private schools for her children. That is parental commitment for you.

But this is not quite what Mr Miliband has in mind. He wants greater parental involvement in state education, which he promises will make the "Blair generation" of children the "best educated generation yet".

Commitment to state education, like commitment to the NHS or to state ownership of public services, is like believing in God. You have to keep telling yourself to have faith. No matter what hell on Earth the bloke up there puts you through, one day something good will come of it. Even though Labour has stripped schools of resources and drives away good teachers with lack of support and appalling salaries, it will still keep its promise to our kids; that is, perform a miracle for them.

Ever ask a minister of God, when your life hits a bad patch, why God does not step in and perform a miracle for you? After all, you believe in him, you pray. What does he say? "God helps those who help themselves."

Ask a government minister how they are going to provide a good state education for our kids, even after all the cuts in spending, and you will get the same answer. Do not expect them to invest more in education when it is better wasted on war. Labour helps those who help themselves.

Parental involvement can take several forms. For wannabe private-schoolers who cannot afford fees, there is "playing the league tables": moving home to be near schools which are at the top of the tree. Miliband sees this as parents doing "their best for their kids". To help their efforts, he is making the tables more user-friendly.

Unfortunately, those other league-table aficionados, estate agents, make living in the catchment areas of "top" schools affordable only to those just below the private-school earnings bracket. Those in these areas can then colonise local schools and give their children an education comparable to a private one, while splitting the cost across taxpayers.

Parents lower down the earnings tables send their children to "middling" schools and have to settle for out-of-school tuition.

This latter trend is not just confined to those who can afford it. The creation of "good school" ghettos tends to create "bad school" ones as their alter egos. Schools in areas where most parents lack the middle-class articulacy and clout to protest against under-resourcing. Where parents just take what little the state shells out and try to make up for the lack of resources with jumble sales. Schools where desperation drives parents to slash the family food budget to hire private tutors. My daughter's school is on the border of poor and middle-income homes. She informs me that most of her year group has private tuition. This means there are many parents contributing financially to Miliband's miracle.

Daughter, unfortunately, has the kind of parents Miliband would deplore.

Awful people who expect poor government to use taxes to pay for our child's education. Our sole involvement in her education so far is to exploit the freebies of London - the galleries, museums and libraries, and educational programmes on TV.

But such things, together with shared reading and discussions around the dinner table, do not constitute a sufficient level of parental involvement for her to become one of Blair's babies. So I decided to give Daughter extra tuition myself.

However, 30 years of rust had settled on the old brains, so I embarked on the ultimate sacrifice - I enrolled for a GCSE in maths at my local college. And who did I find there? Other mums.

Doubtless our sons and daughters will do extremely well. Their schools will go up the league tables. The Government will give itself an A* in education. I doubt we will hear much about parental contribution then.

But those of us who have suffered the travails of trigonometry twice in a lifetime will know the truth behind Miliband's miracle of getting results with a minimum of government contribution.

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Shereen Pandit

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