As a state-school graduate, I am used to having my alma mater and her affiliates criticised. They underachieve, they overachieve (due to teacher manipulation), they're broken, all the girls are pregnant at thirteen and no alumni will ever be prime minister. Things have reached such depths that Nick Clegg is prepared to take a step which once would have been further career suicide and is considering sending his eldest son to private school.
An article in the Times at the weekend, by fellow comprehensive graduate Janice Turner, bemoans the way her state school failed to push her. She laments the dominance of the privately educated at the top, but is paying for her children's education, reluctantly, for their own good. And this is the slight about state school I find particularly offensive. The seemingly accepted assumption that your local comp is a place to which your parents only send you - if they can afford to do otherwise - to assuage their liberal consciences. And that their children suffer because of this, and all good parents will go private if they can.
I am well aware that the corridors of power, and Oxbridge, are stuffed to the hilt with the privately educated. I will not deny that I had more obstacles to overcome than counterparts who paid for their education. But going to private school is no guarantee of success. If you send your child to private school you can't breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that your child will inherit the earth instead of collecting bins.
I know people who went to private school who came out with no better grades than me, and aren't in perilously lofty careers. They're not necessarily doing better than those of us who slogged it out in the cess-pits-of-educational-horror-where-ambition-goes-to-die. Private school might be a leg up, it might help the some to soar, there might be tiny classes and beautiful libraries. But you can still fail. You can still be bullied. You can still not get into Oxbridge. Just because, as Turner notes, Jeremy Hunt's youthful prediction that he was destined for Westminster proved true, a lot don't get close.
An expensive education can't paper over a lack of intelligence. Prep time is no substitute for parental interest and input. You might get into a better university with a public school's name on your CV, although thankfully as the myopic rant of the headmaster of Wellington College indicates it's not as much of a cake walk as it once was, but you won't get a first without hard work and self motivation.
Turner refutes the common adage that what state school children lack in success they make up for in greater breadth of social life, on the grounds that more intelligent children are set, and so are cloistered in their higher GCSE paper clique. But that wasn't the case at my school - we were set in most subjects by year nine, but regardless you didn't shun people with a different maths teacher. My school didn't have Eton's expansive playing fields, but I did extracurricular activities outside school through which I met a range of people and was pushed out of my comfort zone far more than I would have been if I spent seven years with the same people within the same walls.
This is certainly an advantage of state school, as a piece in the Independent challenging Clegg's choice highlights, but that article also suggests that you might pay for your greater social flexibility with a few GCSE grades. This riles me too. You can drop grades at any, even a private, school. I didn't do worse because I went to state school but have more diverse friends as a bonus. My schooling wasn't good just because of, or primarily due to, the by-products. I got eight A*s and 3 As at GCSE, I hold grade 8 on two instruments. It was also just good.
My parents could have sent me to private school. There are plenty where I grew up. But they didn't because they felt though I might miss some helping hands, I would be better educated at a local comp. They chose that school carefully, and perhaps we were lucky in the area we lived, but it was nevertheless just a normal state school. Hand wringing and a fear of what people would think didn't come into it. It was just the best choice. Private school might be the right choice for those who can afford it for some kids in some areas. But it is not always. And it doesn't guarantee anything.