This is a curious book. Andrew Penman is a Daily Mirror journalist and a self-confessed “pinko” and at first glance School Daze appears to be a typical leftwing tirade against any school that isn’t a bog-standard comprehensive. “What Labour should have done as soon as it got into power is abolish grammars and remove charitable status from private schools,” says his wife Pam and Penman agrees with her.
“So long as there are schools that suck in pupils from richer or more able families, then the remaining schools will be left with less able and poorer pupils,” he writes.
He has a particular bee in his bonnet about faith schools. He has little time for the argument that people of a particular faith who want their children to be educated within that religion should be able to send them to state-funded faith schools, even if they pay for those schools with their own taxes.
“The only over-subscribed faith schools are the successful ones,” he writes. “You don’t get over-subscribed failing faith schools. That’s because it’s not education in a particular faith that most parents want, it’s just a good education.”
All pretty straightforward and predictable. As a parent trying to set up a free school in West London, I encounter this mindset all the time. There is a vocal lobby group out there who are deeply opposed to allowing parents any choice about where to educate their children. They think we should all be forced to send our children to the nearest, one-size-fits-all comprehensive. It’s no surprise that a campaigning, leftwing journalist should share these views.
What makes School Daze unusual is the complete disconnect between Penman’s political beliefs and his behaviour. Anyone involved in the education debate is used to encountering hypocrisy among middle class defenders of state education – Polly Toynbee, for instance, sent her children to private school – but not on quite such an epic scale.
In the first few pages of this book, which takes the form of a diary recording Penman’s efforts to secure his two children a good education, he cheerfully admits to having faked Anglicanism in order to get them into a Church of England primary school. Not only that, but he seriously entertains the idea of getting both his children baptized as well so they’re eligible for a place at a high-performing Catholic secondary school. “Don’t have more than a residual ounce of Catholicism in me, but St John the Baptist really is a very good school,” he writes.
In the end, he and his wife decide to spend £40,000 on a move to Surrey so they can be within the catchment area of a halfway decent comprehensive. Apparently, it’s completely unacceptable for parents to spend money on private education, but okay for a middle class family to spend tens of thousands of pounds to buy a place at a good state school. Selection by ability is morally indefensible, but selection by postcode is fine.
Penman’s defence is that he’s simply acting in the best interests of his children. “I care deeply about my children’s education and am prepared to make sacrifices to ensure they get the best I can manage,” he writes. He would prefer to live in a more equal society in which the middle classes can’t use their resources to secure a better-than-average education for their offspring, but until a Labour government is bold enough to abolish private schools and turn faith schools and grammar schools into bog-standard comprehensives, he will continue to behave “pragmatically”.
“If that means mumbling ‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…’ every couple of weeks when I believe nothing of the kind, then so be it,” he writes.
There are hundreds of thousands of Labour voters up and down the country who are guilty of exactly the same hypocrisy when it comes to their children’s education, but most of them have the decency to feel slightly embarrassed about it. Not Penman. “Funny how your opinions change when it’s the fate of your children at stake,” he writes, breezily.
In its own way, School Daze is quite entertaining. It’s a step-by-step guide through the moral maze of contemporary education written by someone without a moral compass. Where angels fear to tread, Penman blunders in, apparently unaware that people on both sides of the education debate will find his book offensive. He has a Mr Magoo quality that is almost endearing. But for his children’s sake, I hope morality is one of the subjects taught at their Surrey comprehensive.