Let’s not talk about politics this week.
At least not the rows and resentments at Holyrood; the ghastly business will still be there a week from now. Let’s talk about something more precious, far more difficult to negotiate. Let’s talk about love.
No politics, however lofty, can match the idealism of love, especially the love of a parent for a child — that devotion that makes mothers run into burning buildings and even the most stoical fathers well up over felt-tip artwork.
A parent’s love is fierce, and fiercely tested, but seldom broken. It can be a mystery to those without children, not least the swings from joy to exasperation to pride all in a matter of minutes. It’s safer to get between a bear and his lunch than a parent and their offspring.
And yet that is what some would have us do when it comes to Anas Sarwar. The Glasgow MSP is one of two candidates for the Scottish Labour leadership and a few comradely eyebrows have been hoist aloft that both Mr Sarwar and his rival, Richard Leonard, are ex-private schoolboys. Further scrutiny has fallen on Mr Sarwar, though, because he and his wife choose to send their two sons to an independent school.
One Labour insider told a newspaper this was ‘an image problem’ for the leadership hopeful, while another said there was ‘no doubt that certain people will take issue’ with it. ‘You can’t be a socialist while buying educational privilege for your child – the two are entirely incompatible,’ declared one left-wing education campaigner.
All is not well in the brotherhood of man.
Like me, you might observe this from a distance and find it slightly bizarre. What business is it of anyone where the Sarwars send their children to school? It’s their money to spend as they please. But critics say it’s hypocritical — a Labour politician should be committed to educational equality and private schools stand in the way.
Mr Sarwar evidently does not agree, for he speaks passionately about the importance of giving every child a good education. He is being asked to put other people’s principles ahead of what he thinks is best for his sons.
As a state school boy, the idea of the wealthy being able to opt out of the system I was lumped with does rankle somewhat. I was blessed with some excellent teachers, lucky to have some good ones, but others still were mediocre, unimaginative, plainly bored and keenly boring, and there to collect a salary. Some were incompetent. Some were drunk.
So I don’t resent Mr Sarwar his good fortune and the choice this affords him. Wanting the best for your children, giving them a start in life, is an instinct all good parents share regardless of means.
Try this thought experiment. You are taking your son or daughter to their first day at the local bog standard. It’s not a terrible school but not great either, just average, and your only real option. You arrive at the rusted gates; beyond them pupils scuffle next to a broken window, its fracture held together precariously by masking tape. A harassed headmistress tries to break up the altercation but the junior sluggers ignore her.
As you double check that you packed the exercise book and pencils — budgets are tight, the letter explained — something across the street catches your eye. It’s a shiny new school, in pristine condition. The children navigate a pavement jungle of Range Rovers to file in with cordial chatter and respectful trills of ‘Good morning, Mrs Smith’. Everything about it screams ‘private school’. Everyone in your family came up through state schools. You couldn’t afford anything else and, besides, weren’t private schools a bit snooty?
Now, imagine there was a sign outside this new academy. ‘Free tuition for the first ten state sector pupils through the gates.’ Would you hesitate, ponder questions of elitism and equality, then drop your child off at the comp as planned? Or would you dart across the street to be in with a chance? Most parents, I reckon, would backhand oncoming lorries to reach that new school before anyone else.
And yet ideologues would tell you this is the wrong answer. That you should march dutifully into the second-rate state school and feel a warm glow of virtue that you have rejected ‘privilege’ and and its works.
Supporters of private schooling often trot out sophistic arguments about parents ‘paying twice’, covering the cost of their children’s education while still stumping up taxes to bankroll the state sector. They are, but only in the same sense that filling up the family car while your taxes subsidise the rail network is ‘paying twice’. What it comes down to is choice. Independent schools offer parents an alternative to monolithic state provision.
And how is the leviathan doing? There are 4000 fewer teachers than ten years ago. Research by one union found 62% of members considered quitting last year while 65% said they would not recommend teaching as a career. Less than half of secondary two pupils are performing well in writing while attainment in reading is lower among primary four and seven pupils than four years ago.
None of these problems would be solved by robbing parents of choice. Indeed, the best thing that could happen to state education would be an explosion of new independent schools and a programmes of school vouchers to cover the fees. Competition would force state schools to raise their game to the benefit of the many. It’s not good private schools that cause educational inequality but poor state schools.
If Anas Sarwar is a bad socialist, it’s because he is trying to be a good father. If he were prepared to see his children receive an inferior education to advance his political career, would that make him more principled? We ask a lot of politicians and so we should. What we cannot ask them to do is sacrifice their children’s future to ideological zealotry. We can’t tell them to put politics before love.
The 2017 Proms season came to a magisterial close on Saturday night, amid crowds of Brits and tourists from far afield hollering Rule Britannia with politically incorrect abandon.
Conductor Sakari Oramo told the audience: ‘For many decades we have heard about the imminent demise of classical music. But look at this. Classical music is going to be around for a very long time.’
As a classical music fan — though hardly an expert — it was indeed a reassuring sight. As Quentin Letts wrote recently in a terrific defence of Classic FM from the Radio Three snoberati: ‘The great thing about the station is that it welcomes newcomers and does not make them feel ignorant. The station recently received an email from a motorist who said he had had to pull over while listening to a piece Classic FM was playing, he thought it was so extraordinary.’
That is what fine music is all about. And it belongs to us all, not some cloistered elite.
‘I just got IDed in Scotmid when buying wine,’ tweets 41-year-old Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!’ This is why we need a Labour government. Supermarket workers with eyesight problems that severe really should be getting glasses free on the NHS.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.