Michael Gove has a way of putting his colleagues on the spot. When he said that he would vote to leave the EU were a referendum to take place now, Conservative Cabinet members were asked whether they agreed – and Phillip Hammond also came out for departure. Gove recently let it be known that his daughter will go to a state school: she will be the first child of a Conservative Education Secretary to do so. And, like Hammond, David Cameron is following where Gove has led: today, the Daily Mail describes how the Prime Minister has also decided to send his daughter to a state school: she will thus become the first child of a Tory Prime Minister so to do.
You can see where all this is heading. Last week, Ministers were besieged with enquiries, in the wake of James Brokenshire’s speech over immigration, about whether or not they have ever employed a foreign nanny. Cue the newsdesk questions and feature articles about Conservative Ministers, their children – and where the latter are sent to school. Tories in Government should brace themselves for another “Brokenshire Moment”. Some of them, such as Ken Clarke, have chosen the state sector (or can’t afford otherwise). Others, such as George Osborne, have opted for the private eduction. They can expect their choices to be pored over.
Furthermore, the emotional temperature has been raised by Sarah Vine – a.k.a Mrs Gove – over the reason why parents shun state schools. In her Mail column, she wrote a take-no-prisoners account, claiming that “snobbery” is one of the reasons why parents opt for the private sector: “Of course the parents of private school children are paying for the best teachers and facilities. But let’s be honest: they’re also paying for their child to mix with the right kind of kids.” The Education Secretary isn’t responsible for what his wife writes, but some of his colleagues may not see it that way. Libby Purves launches a counter-assault on Vine in today’s Times (£).
Since the private is also the public and the political in this age, there are three wider points. First, it has usually been Labour politicians whose educational choices made headlines: remember Harriet Harman and Diane Abbott’s choice of grammar or private schools for their children. Those terms of trade may now be reversed. Second, that this is so says something about the way we live now – politically, at least. The Tory problem of seeming to be “the party of the rich” is leaking into the choices Conservative politicians make for their children. Finally, there is that persistent educational issue, which Gove’s reforms are bravely tackling, of parental choice in the state sector itself.
The Education Secretary’s daughter will go to Grey Coat, a Westminster Church of England school that is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. As the Telegraph pointed out in its report of the news, “more than four in ten children in some areas were yesterday denied their preferred secondary school amid mounting competition for places. Tens of thousands of ten and 11-year-olds found they had missed out as allocations were announced by councils across the country”. Many parents aren’t as lucky as the Goves in finding a good state school: there may not be selection by ability outside the grammars, but there can be selection by house price. His opportunity-enhancing reforms have a long way to go.