February 1, 2013 7:09 pm

The qualms of Nick

If you have the cash and a dearth of good state school options, you have a moral obligation to educate your children privately
illustration of nick clegg as a school truant by Lucas Varela©Lucas Varela

It was, I suppose, inevitable that an angst-ridden posh boy like Nick Clegg should be caught hand-wringing about whether to send his children to a private school. The deputy prime minister revealed his turmoil over the issue in a radio show, explaining that although he was looking at a state secondary school, he was prepared to subject his son to the privilege and educational advantage of a private school if he had to do so.

That’s right punks, Nick won’t waver. There’ll be no mea culpas or YouTube apologies. If he has to send his son to a fee-paying school, he’ll just do it and to hell with the consequences. He’s that tough. Actually it may be his wife. She is apparently selfishly insisting that they do what feels like the best thing for the kids and don’t sacrifice their future on the altar of whatever Nick’s principles happen to be at the time.

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Robert Shrimsley

In a sense, he was merely articulating the conversations one would hear at the breakfast table of any family fortunate enough to have the choice of private education. Yet there was something whiny about Clegg’s comments; a tiresome whiff of protestation in his words, as if to say that it’s really only because he’s such a great parent that he’s prepared to consider the stigma of a private education he has in the past dismissed as creating a “corrosive” gap in society.

Mind you, we should not forget that when Nick talks about preferring the state-school route he’s not talking about the ordinary, run-of-the-mill, “bog-standard” comp that Alastair Campbell once derided. Nick won’t be slumming it unless he can squeeze the boy into one of those top state schools that even Tony Blair was prepared to soil his hands with. You know the type, the London Oratory, Tiffin Boys, the Four Seasons Academy, the Merchants of Venice Day School – the sort of place where a young chap will still mix with the right sort of other young chaps and still maintain his parents’ virtuous state-school cred.

On second thoughts, maybe one can imagine the mea culpa justifying the decision to send the boy private: “I had a duty, a solemn duty to try state education but, when the Oratory heard I was an atheist they turned us away. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry.”

What is so depressing about this is that Clegg’s qualms are really just a more magnified form of the defensiveness many feel about what is essentially trying to do the best by their children. Yet it is uniquely those cosmopolitan, privileged types like Clegg – a horny-handed son of Chalfont St Giles – who feel the need to justify and even apologise for their decisions. You rarely see such misgivings among those raised without such advantages.

Not only should parents stop apologising; they should get out there and stand proud. If you have the cash and a dearth of good state school options, frankly you have a moral obligation to educate your children privately. Those cultures that place the highest premium on learning would be astonished to think of parents using the money any other way. Many, if not most, private-school parents aren’t super-privileged toffs, they are ordinary people with well-paid jobs. They don’t shell out thousands a year in the belief they are supporting a charitable venture. They do it because they lack confidence in the alternative.

There’s plenty wrong with private schools, of course. They can be too obsessed with grades and hothouse the kids. They can also be too insular, though most are far from the caricature of snobbery their opponents like to imagine. What is more, there are some fine state schools – the sort Nick would send his kids to; the oversubscribed kind of place that parents move house to be near.

Of course, having the right parents is the biggest educational advantage, so critics will tell you that the young Cleggs are likely to be fine in any school. But when did “being fine” become the summit of ambition?

The only things you can give your children are positive genes, unconditional love, moral principles and a good education. Would it be more admirable to spend the money on a sports car and a second home?

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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