Blair’s ruinous legacy of beta children

Legacy is a word that Tony Blair has made ridiculous, like many words that new Labour has robbed of meaning, such as choice or consultation. His legacy to this country’s state school children, for all his bold promises, is not an education system that has been carefully enriched, but something that has been rashly squandered.

The proof is everywhere; whether you look at social mobility, basic literacy and numeracy, exam standards, bullying or truancy, everything has got worse. If more proof were needed, it emerged on Friday that thousands of parents and children are joining an exodus from state education.

According to the Independent Schools Council, nearly 40,000 more children are being educated privately than when Blair came to No 10 in 1997. This is despite the fact that many private school fees have doubled in the same period, and despite the fact that there has been a drop in the number of British children of school age.

It brings the total number of children who have opted out of state education, their parents thus paying twice for schooling, to more than 509,000. More than half a million children. One in seven in London, one in four in Edinburgh and nearly a quarter of all sixth-formers.

This is what is known as voting with your feet in despair at Blair’s education policies (which cost £34.5 billion a year). More families would follow if they could: a Mori poll showed that nearly half of all parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford to, although most people can’t. Their children are trapped in comps aptly described by Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former press spokesman, as “bog standard”. Many of them are places of danger and disorder. Some legacy.

What a betrayal, too, of the cherished ideal of good, free and suitable schooling for every child, of an opportunity for every child to do his or her best. Admittedly meritocracy can be as harsh as plutocracy or aristocracy. Meritocracy means inequality; children’s innate abilities are not equal. But all the same most people seem agreed that when poor children from poor families could rise in the world through good state schooling, when ordinary children could overtake the children of privilege – which they could easily do in the era of orderly old-fashioned grammar schools but cannot now – Britain was a better place.

The important question now is why half of all parents fear state schools so much. Why will parents make such huge sacrifices to go private? If you have three children at a top boarding school, that is £75,000 a year after tax. If you have two at an average private day school, that is £18,000 a year after tax and that sum has doubled since 1997.

The answer is perfectly simple. Private schools offer high standards both in education and in personal and social upbringing, of a sort that all too many state schools abandoned long ago. All private schools, academic or not, make pastoral and individual care a high sales priority.

They offer different kinds of school and different kinds of education for different children – from super bright to average to downright difficult. Discipline is enforced. Bullying is stamped on. Delinquents are expelled, except from special schools designed for delinquents. Private schools offer good pupil-staff ratios: one teacher for every 9.7 pupils in the private sector, compared with 1 to 17 in the state sector, with much lower teacher turnover and few problems of discipline, attendance and so on.

Private schools vie with each other in offering wide ranges of subjects from astronomy to tuba lessons; state schools have made modern languages optional after the age of 14 and their music and sports provision – the pride of private schools – is abysmal. Their maths and physics teachers are sometimes unqualified.

There are some poor private schools but informed parents and a free market soon bring them either up or down and out. The failing schools in special measures in the state system could not survive in the private sector. Which is one of the reasons so many parents vote with their feet when they can – if not to private schools, then at least to nicer state school catchment areas.

The main reason, however, has to do with a social fault line that has cracked wide open under new Labour, although Conservative governments are partly to blame. The problem is not just one of educational standards. There is a new kind of class system, which has less to do with snobbery than with safety and survival.

Perhaps some people did once avoid state schools out of snobbery, preferring their children to mix with the “right” people; things are different now. Parents are terrified of their children at the local state school mixing with the “wrong” people – children who are uncontrolled and uncontrollable, ill-mannered, disaffected, ignorant, semi-criminal, semi-literate or perhaps unable to speak English.

Parents will not willingly send their children to fend for themselves among children like that, to be distracted from their all too limited educational opportunities by bullies and underachievers. And why should they? I refused to send my son to the local inner city comp for that reason. It was not snobbery. It was not even that he was very academic or suited to a highflying school. It was that the only state school around would be worse than useless; it would do damage.

Horrible though it is to say so, there are now only two kinds of children in this country, regardless of social class. We have alpha children and beta children. The alphas, born to alpha parents of all classes, are well mannered, well disciplined, sociable, responsible and hard working, or willing to be so. Betas are not. They are the tragic result of Blair’s failure with education, his failure with social mobility and his wider social policies.

Beta children are not just unfortunate themselves; they inflict their misfortune on others. They turn their schools into beta schools and they quickly turn alpha pupils into beta pupils. It takes only a small critical mass of betas to blight a school. No wonder that aspirational alpha parents do whatever they can to keep their children away from the betas and the beta schools in the state sector. As I say, some legacy.