26 January 2014

I think most people know I’m proud to be British. There’s a lot to be proud of on our little Island. I love the great British trait of “supporting the underdog.” That being said, recently there is more and more negative talk about the section of society that earns above average salaries. Ironically, politicians fall under this line by about £500, yet if you add their expenses in to the equation they are amongst the most wealthy people in Britain.

Yet it’s these politicians, exempt of the rules they create, who are calling for more and more flesh from the bone.

The government makes all the right noises about wanting to support entrepreneurship, but when people do become successful – starting or growing businesses and creating jobs – they are all too quick to start piling on the pressure, mainly due to overspending and poor decision making from predecessors.  The automatic reaction is to demand that high-earning Brits cough up even more money to plug the gaps.

So with around £50bn being squandered on sending people at breakneck speeds from the North down to London with HS2, you can imagine how unimpressed I was to read Dr Anthony Seldon’s recent report on education, published last Wednesday. If you haven’t seen it, this is a man who is arguing that “rich” parents (people with an income of £80K or more) should pay to send their children to popular state schools… because they can afford it. The implication here is that high earners shouldn’t get something for ‘free’, but surely this is why we are paying tax in the first place?

The only thing free in this country is air (until they find a way to tax that too) although you could class inheritance tax as a tax when you stop breathing!

I think it would be wrong to remove people’s choices as to where they send their children for an education and how they manage their money. Let’s put it this way, someone with an £80,000 pays for state education, yet a politician who has just had a whopping pay increase might get £79,500 with £240,000 expenses.

Put this into perspective. If a normal person were to spend £240,000 of their own savings, they’d have had to earn over £410,000 before tax to have £240,000 left over. So a politician is living like a king with the equivalent of real life spends of someone who is earning £489,500. This doesn’t take into consideration a whole raft of expenses like the 2 Jags and various other things that come as standard perks that are below the radar.

Politicians are the new pop stars! And they really have pulled  the wool over the nation’s eyes, preaching about helping the poorer families.

I can live with all this, but the real question is what are we actually getting for our tax? We should be asking for value for money, not being told because we have spent too much on poor management of funds…. we need more. It’s just another indirect way of taxing people and here’s the ironic thing; the more they push down on the higher earners, the more of them will simply move abroad.

The issue isn’t getting people to pay for school, but improving the way we are spending our money on schools and creating a better school environment. In the current situation, you can’t even compare the highest performing state school with the lowest performing public school. And I’m not talking about rankings or league tables. The way to measure education is by looking at society as a whole and by looking at what’s happening in the poorer areas. This is where we need to be focussing our help.

In life, you can only go at the speed of your lowest performing person. When we climb Snowdon as a group, we try to get to the top as fast as we can but we’re mindful that we can only get there at the speed of the slowest person. Education isn’t about how many people you can get through the pass rate at the top end; it’s about how you get the people at the bottom up so you all pass together. So why is the government not doing more to bring the standard of state schools up to rival that of the private ones? Why aren’t they looking at the reasons why private schools create better environments and applying similar methodology?

I have the benefit of experience in both private and state schools and I’ve seen the ownership and responsibility a teacher has at a private school. When I was growing up, we lived on a small estate in Denbigh. After 2 years of singing my heart out in St. Asaph Cathedral from the age of 5, I got a free scholarship to Durham Chorister School. My parents sent me hundreds of miles away to school because they knew I’d get a much better education than they could ever afford (although you might argue it was because I was a pain in the butt).

I’ve also seen this disparity with our own children. Gail’s dad was a teacher and he and Gail were keen that the kids went to a state school as we lived in an area where the state school is supposedly one of the best, but it wasn’t until we started watching our kids grow up with our friends’ children who were in private schools that we realised, we were failing our kids and they were falling light years behind. Poppy was struggling to read and count and had similar learning difficulties to me and Tegan too was just so far behind. After a really tough 18 months, Tegan’s gone from bottom to top of the class and Poppy has gone from an environment where the teachers had written her off as dyslexic to now being able to read and write. She has still a long way to go, but I have certainty that she will get there because she is amongst people who genuinely care. We are lucky that we are able to afford to do this. However, this should be every person’s right in a 21st century Britain that every child should get a top class education. It’s a disgrace when you consider all the tax we do pay!

Ultimately, if you charge the more well off parents for their kids to attend state schools, they just won’t go. Why would they if they could just pay for a private school and get a better education from it? As for Dr Seldon’s other suggestion that private schools should reserve a quarter of their places for pupils from poorer backgrounds – a school is a business. Independent schools work to plug the gaps left by the government’s failings already by providing scholarships and other programmes. How would you expect a private school to fund a quarter of its places for students?

Private schools would just end up putting their prices up. As it is, there are less and less British kids in private schools year on year as richer countries see the value in sending their children to the UK private schools.

I don’t claim to know all the answers but I think it’s safe to say that Anthony Seldon doesn’t know them either. How much did that report cost? Dr Anthony Seldon clearly has no commercial acumen whatsoever. The report itself is a direct waste of our taxes and demonstrates the ridiculous way the government squanders money far too easily.

Personally, I would urge the government to look at why private schools are more successful and help to bring state schools up to the same level. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Tony Blair went to my school in Durham. David Cameron and Boris Johnson went to Eton. These boys know what’s needed, they are just playing dumb and because their kids wont be affected, they are brushing it under the carpet.

The reason why private schools create better environments, in my opinion, is that they measure their kids’ progress and are held accountable for it. How much would state schools improve by measuring everything and making everything a challenge with a leader board? Putting sport at the highest pinnacle is really important so that children who aren’t top of the class academically have a chance to succeed and compete too.

We need to be aiming for a situation where state and private schools are able to compete with one another at the highest level, but this won’t come from forcing the hands of the wealthy. What do you think about Seldon’s suggestions and how do you think we can create a better environment in all schools?


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