Sunday, 10 October 2010

Nick Clegg's school report

It is plainly absurd for the Mail on Sunday to accuse Nick Clegg of hypocrisy for wanting to send his eldest son to one of the country's top-performing Catholic schools, on the grounds of his own atheism and his party's long-standing opposition to "faith" schools. For one thing, his wife is a practising Catholic and she has at least as much right to choose a school for her children as he does. For another, it would seem an unreasonable expectation to lay on any parent, that they should deliberately choose to send their child to a bad school where a good one is available.

One may perhaps question why he is so keen for his children to be indoctrinated with ideas that (one assumes) he considers to be nonsense. This is not exactly "hypocrisy" - after all, it would not be the first time his views on "faith" have been revealed to be decidedly ambivalent. All three children already attend Catholic primary schools, and he has said quite clearly - in the same 2007 interview in which he denied the existence of God - that he was "committed" to bringing up his children in his wife's faith. He has even been seen in church. But it is a sign of the genuflection towards faith that even avowed atheists in public life feel they must adopt if they are to maintain a quiet life. "I'm an atheist - but don't worry, I have enormous admiration and respect for faith." It rarely seems to flow in the other direction. Even in a society usually held up as an example of extreme secularism, lack of belief is still something politicians feel they have to make apologies for.

The real problem, though, lies elsewhere. Like David Cameron, and Tony Blair before them, Nick Clegg is denying his children the private education that he enjoyed and could easily afford, for purely political reasons. For reasons I cannot entirely fathom (perhaps someone can explain it to me) this is a modern British phenomenon. Barack and Michelle Obama were able to send their daughters to an exclusive private school with almost no adverse comment whatever. Why should it be so different here?

The idea, presumably, is that by freeing up a place in a top-ranking state school for a poorer pupil who might actually benefit from it, the Cleggs (or the Camerons) would be demonstrating a lack of confidence in the state system. They would face even greater opprobrium, no doubt, if a member of their family went private for an operation. Logically, this is absurd. No-one expects politicians to live in council houses or rely exclusively on public transport. Their taxes would continue to pay for state schools and NHS hospitals even if they directly benefit from them. By not burdening the state education system, senior politicians could be seen to set an example to other better-off parents - at the same time as fulfilling every parent's instinct to do the best for their kids. It's less selfish, surely, than exploiting the systemn for maximum personal advantage while expecting the taxpayer to pick up the bill.