John Harris

Journalist & Author

What does Michael Gove’s choice of school mean for David Cameron? | John Harris

Labour politicians have long faced criticism for sending their children to private schools, but the education secretary’s decision to keep his daughter in the state system makes it an issue for the Tories as well

It’s a story so common as to have long since become a cliche. A senior politician has a child approaching the end of primary school, usually in London. They can apply for a place at any number of state-run institutions – but, as evidenced by the experience of such figures as Nick Clegg, Tony Blair and Harriet Harman, passing over local schools in favour of some distant, highly rated, possibly selective place will bring on noisy controversy. And if they go private? On that score, whether fairly or not, one story stands as a chilling cautionary tale: that of Diane Abbott, who sent her son to the £10,000-a-year City of London school in 2003, and then acknowledged that doing so was “indefensible”.

Politicans now live lives akin to Big Brother contestants: the media is constantly on the lookout for cant and hypocrisy, while the public is encouraged to believe that even the holders of high office should be able to empathise with ordinary folks. Up until now, though, the question of where senior politicians chose to have their kids educated was always focused on the Labour party. The days when such Labour leaders as Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan could go private were obviously over. But why did no one ever hold the Tories to account?

Self-evidently, private education is a much more problematic notion for the left than the right. But have there not been long-overlooked tensions between what senior Tories say and do? Margaret Thatcher successfully reinvented the Conservatives as the supposed party of self-made meritocrats with its support rooted in the aspiring working class, but her son Mark ended up at Harrow (he left with three O-levels), while daughter Carol went to the fee-paying Queenswood school in Hertfordshire, and west London’s exclusive St Paul’s girls’ school. By the same token, there is an obvious discrepancy between George Osborne minting the phrase “we’re all in this together”, and his own choices: in 2008, it was reported that he had “withdrawn” his two children from a state primary close to the Houses of Parliament, and secured them places at an £11,500-a-year prep school.

In the end, though, all this probably comes down to something even more fundamental. In 2012, the former Labour education minister Andrew Adonis claimed that politicians who went private should have no say in the state education system. “Too much of failed education policy since the war has been the result of ideological ministers who don’t use the institutions that they expect the general public to use,” he said, “and that has been true of the Labour side as well as well as the Tories.”

Sarah Vine’s explanation of her and Michael Gove’s decision makes no reference to any of that. Instead, she admirably pays tribute to the comprehensive ideal, has a welcome pop at private schools’ “snobbery”, and seems to question whether education needs to be so fixated with results (which, interestingly enough, sits ever so slightly awkwardly with the approach taken by her husband). But the fact that Gove is the first Tory education secretary to use a state secondary opens up some very big issues. And in doing so, it is likely to make life for senior Tory politicians much more difficult than they would like.

David Cameron has a daughter at the same state primary school attended by Gove’s. In 2009, he said that he would like his children to “go through the state sector”. But the following year, apparently ignoring the fact that London’s schools are now outperforming those in the rest of the country, he said he was “terrified” by the prospect of living in central London and trying to find “a good secondary school”, and made reference to people “breaking the bank” to have their children privately educated. He will have to make a decision later this year; the Gove/Vine story has inevitably raised the stakes, and then some.

A country where even an Eton-educated Tory prime minister sends his offspring to comprehensive schools – can you imagine? Might, at long last, questions even be asked of the royals? While we’re here, it’s also worth noting that last time he was asked where his children might be educated, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt – an alumnus of £6,000-a-term University College School, Hampstead – gave a rather lacklustre reply and said he would “never rule out whatever takes place”, whatever that meant. He will be asked the same question again – perhaps, thanks to this story, in a matter of days. What will he say this time?

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