Like all crises, coronavirus has thrown into sharp relief countries’ socio-economic inequalities. This being Britain, how and where you educate your children will have had a profound effect on their (and your) experience of the past few months.
An article in The Guardian reporting a surge in middle-class interest for private school places quoted figures from a survey by Teacher Tapp which found that in April only three percent of state-funded primary and six percent of state-funded secondary schools were able to provide “live” online lessons for students, compared with 59 percent of private primary and 72 percent of private secondary schools.
The thing I am most grateful for from my Catholic state education is the consequent exposure to people from all over the world. – Alexis Self
Seeing the alarming gulf in these figures, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many middle-class parents able to afford it are thinking of going private. Come September, if the predicted exodus does take place, it will not only represent a failure on the government’s part (why prioritise the reopening of pubs and restaurants over schools?) but also reverse years of progress made in closing the gap between the two sectors.
At this point, as is customary, I feel I must declare my own almae matres. I attended three Catholic state schools in West London. Besides one or two Latin words, these institutions taught me a few invaluable lessons. Not least among these was a heightened awareness of the neurotic strata of the British class system.
Talking and looking the way I do, many people assume that I went to a private school. This misconception used to rankle more than it does now. Partly I think that’s due to the inevitable shedding of self-consciousness which comes with age, but also because, in the past ten years, there has been a narrowing of the attainment gap between the two sectors—and, as such, an increase in the number of middle-class kids going to state schools.
In April only three percent of state-funded primary and six percent of state-funded secondary schools were able to provide “live” online lessons for students. – Alexis Self
In the mid-1990s, it was a different story. For most middle-class parents, especially those in London, sending your kids to the local state school was anathema to the idea of achieving the best possible education. I had no say in my own particular path, but, in hindsight, feel I was lucky in two ways: if I had struggled, my parents could have probably mustered the money to send me to a private school; and, my mother is Catholic.
Back then, religious state schools, especially those in London, were academic overachievers. My infant school, Larmenier, was located in Nazareth House, a convent in Hammersmith established in 1857 as a sanctuary for the elderly poor, which soon expanded to take in orphans and sick children, eventually becoming an educational institution.
When I arrived there, in 1995, it admitted children from nursery age to year two. By then, most of the teaching was done by plain-clothes professionals, but the nuns still taught Religious Studies as well as certain extra-curricular activities such as sewing and handicrafts. I remember them as smiling maternal figures, quite unlike those described by my mum from her convent years at Shaftesbury.
From Larmenier, the natural progression was to move on to Sacred Heart, its sister school across Hammersmith Road, and thence, if you were male, to Cardinal Vaughan, an all-boys comprehensive secondary in Holland Park. By the time I reached there, I had begun to bristle at the conformities inherent in a Catholic education—basically those of a traditional institution dialled up to 11. The school’s rigid views on uniform and punctuality jarred with my growing fondness for less salubrious endeavours. And yet, despite my relentless clashing with the powers that were, and repeated threats of expulsion, I am eternally glad they persevered with me.
Our similitude was intrinsic in our faith. – Alexis Self
I realise now that Cardinal Vaughan’s stringent rules weren’t borne from punitive desire but rather were a consequence of a strong egalitarian ethos. The reason students couldn’t personalise their appearance was so as not to highlight any differences in wealth or status. Our similitude was intrinsic in our faith. Of course, boys being boys, there was incessant ribbing about assorted physical idiosyncrasies, but I don’t recall anyone ever teased for being poor.
In London, the most fervent believers are usually immigrants. And, despite everything else it gave me, the thing I am most grateful for from my Catholic state education is the consequent exposure to people from all over the world. In my class were Colombian, Nigerian, Sri Lankan, Filipino, Polish and Irish boys, most of them second-generation immigrants. We were united by a common religion, but it was our situation, our mere proximity, that bred a greater sense of togetherness.
Before I was conscious of distinctions like race or social class, I was visiting and staying in the homes of friends whose families had escaped war and extreme poverty to come to Britain for a better life. Witnessing their appreciation of that opportunity to have a safer, more prosperous existence did more for my love of country, and religion, than any number of tub-thumping politician’s speeches. As much as church schools like to see themselves as distinct from the rest of the state sector, they share a diversity in make-up. It is this that will be lost with middle-class flight to the private sector.
Of course, state schools’ raison d’etre should not be to woo, or retain, a certain “aspirational” socio-economic group, but the way our education system is set up ensures it is inevitable that any decline in middle-class state attendance will be to the detriment of the whole sector. This won’t just materialise itself in lost funding or a heightening of intra-class inequality, but also the positive impact on social cohesion that comes with exposure at a young age to people with a different background to your own. This is a thing which money cannot buy.
Alexis Self is a writer and journalist who lives in London.
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