Middle classes desert principles

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Anxious parents who abandon local state schools are 'driving them downwards'. William Stewart reports

Middle-class parents "in the grip of an anxiety crisis" are creating a "ticking timebomb" by abandoning local state schools in favour of selective, church and independent alternatives.

The argument is made by Fiona Millar, journalist and former aide to Cherie Blair, in The best for my child, a documentary being shown on Channel 4 tonight.

She suggests that the market in school places is damaging to education as a whole because it is encouraging ambitious, middle-class parents to desert their neighbourhood schools, particularly in the inner cities.

She is backed by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson, who, despite confessing he would still not send his children to the Hackney schools he runs, says that the poorest independent schools are worse than any of their state counterparts.

"It has been much too common across our media to be highly critical of our state education based on one or two examples," he said.

"Certainly as chief inspector I could have done exactly the same with the independent sector. To be quite honest with you, the worst of our independent sector is far worse than anything I can find in the maintained sector, but that doesn't become a story."

Mr Tomlinson told The TES this week that his concerns were about the 1,300 or so independent schools that operated outside the sector's main associations and were not covered by inspections, although this would change in the autumn with the new Education Act.

Ms Millar, chair of governors at Gospel Oak primary, Hampstead, north London, says parents should follow her example. Ten years ago when inspectors "slated" the school, many people took their children out. She was among a group of parents who decided to stay and try to improve it.

Her partner Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's former press secretary, coined the controversial phrase "bog-standard comprehensive" when promoting the diversity and choice available to parents through specialist schools.

The implication is that she disagrees: "The market encourages us to seek the best for our own children while ignoring how that will affect the least popular school, driving them downwards in a vicious circle."

But, after looking at its damaging impact in London, Bristol and north Yorkshire, the programme points to a group of north-west London parents as offering some hope.

Ms Millar says the 22 parents decided last year they had had enough of entrance exams and long journeys to school and agreed en masse to send their children to Queens Park school, the local comprehensive, as a "kind of collective act of faith".

Karen Randle, one of the group, argues: "If you can't follow through your principles with your children, then your children are not worth very much."

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