Education needs its NHS moment

28th August 2009 at 01:00
The recent public defence of the health service from US attacks would be more than welcome for state schools

Spending most of the summer break by my husband's bedside in hospital has meant I have had to find ways to relax and pretend that I was on holiday.

Along with reading the entire set of crime novels by Val McDermid, watching reruns of Taggart and catching a daily dose of Big Brother, I also found time to read a daily newspaper from cover to cover - a luxury headteachers do not always have in term time.

But, even in the height of the summer silly season, newspapers rarely make for relaxing holiday reading. And the reports that raised my blood pressure the most were the vitriolic attacks by the Republicans in the United States against the NHS.

It was even worse to hear a British MEP, the Conservative Daniel Hannan, rubbishing our health service and warning Americans against adopting a system he compared to that of communist North Korea. How dare he!

Thankfully, it brought out the best in us. Thousands of people, including politicians such as Gordon Brown and David Cameron, as well as many celebrities and lots of ordinary citizens, came to the defence of the NHS. They wrote letters, they wrote emails, and even succeeded in crashing online social network Twitter with their outpourings in defence of the health service.

We may complain about waiting lists and cancelled operations, but woe betide outsiders who criticise something we hold so dear. If only we could whip up this kind of support for state education.

We have had another summer of moans about school standards, with the Tories accusing comprehensives of dumbing down and offering "softer" A-levels. So perhaps we could bribe a US radio shock jock or a Fox News presenter to criticise UK schools.

If it worked, British newspapers would soon be full of angry defences of comprehensives, while politicians would point out that international tests show that standards in UK schools are far higher than those in the US. But it is uncertain if this ploy would succeed because people's experience of hospitals and of schools are very different.

You only appreciate how wonderful the NHS is when you have had personal experience of the care it provides. Since my husband was diagnosed with cancer this year, I have seen and experienced the care and expertise offered and delivered by a whole host of health professionals over a long period of time.

If we had had to worry about the costs of every test, every medication and the cost of a five-month hospital stay, I would have had a nervous breakdown by now. Although we are both well paid, my husband, who works in the private sector, does not receive payment when he does not work, so our finances have already been seriously affected by his illness.

Furthermore, I know for a fact that the doctors who worked with my husband did not once hold back on a drug or a test because of the cost if they thought it might be of benefit. They made no attempt to rush him out of hospital in order to give his bed to someone else. While in hospital, he had his own room with en-suite facilities and he had 24-hour care. As he left the hospital in recent weeks, we were stumped for words to express our gratitude for all they had done for us.

Like most large organisations, there are systematic problems within the NHS, but there is a lot being done to sort these out. When you or one of your family have a life-threatening illness, it is a great comfort to know that all your medical needs will be taken care of. Medical insurance may be wonderful, but my general experience of insurers is that the providers do everything they can to avoid paying up. (Trying to claim a refund for the getaway we had booked during the Easter holidays, which had to be cancelled because of my husband's illness, has been a nightmare.)

But there is some similarity here with the state education system. Even when my school, George Green's, has been through troubled times, the parents have spoken highly of it, appreciated what it has done for their children and trusted its teachers.

Yet our own experiences attending school mean that not all of us view the education system positively or through rose-tinted glasses. We tend to spend a far shorter, and much more emotional, part of our lives in hospitals than we do in schools. It is partly because of this, and the fact that surgery under anaesthetic is more life-and-death and more of a mystery than a lesson in a classroom, that we take state education for granted in a way we do not with the health service.

But there are still many similarities between the two. For example, people sign up for private healthcare because they want to beat the queues, have more individual attention and avoid the great unwashed. This may be fine when it comes to a minor ailment or operation, but those with long-term conditions or who require very expensive treatment can find that they are not so well catered for and are often passed back to the NHS.

Similarly, we know that the reason parents choose to educate their children privately is more to do with the people they might meet and socialise with, rather than the quality of education they get. And selective independent schools have the opportunity to turn away those who require the most one-to-one attention or have the greatest special educational needs. The state system can also act as a safety net for those who originally wanted to go private, as some parents who are having difficulty paying their children's school fees are now beginning to discover.

We can at least hope that the recent row will make politicians pause before badmouthing the public sector or cutting its funding. Just because an institution is state funded does not automatically make it bad, and those who claim so risk a mighty backlash.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher, George Green's School, Tower Hamlets, east London.

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