Everybody’s changing, sang chubby-cheeked rockers Keane in 2004. Ain’t that the truth.
There are more protestors outside the Commons these days than there are members of parliament bothering to go inside. People are falling over themselves to say how much money further education should get. And on Wednesday your sketchwriter found himself listening to the Socialist Education Association and the Fabian Society arguing for the abolition of private schools.
Out of courtesy – and a not insignificant worry that I might be barred entry – I had snuck in quietly and perched in the corner. Five minutes later Julie Robinson, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, wandered in. Oh, I’ll sit next to you, she trilled. Cover blown.
Then Melissa Benn walked over. Hello naughty corner, she said. Yep, cover definitely blown.
Ah well. As Aladdin said to Princess Jasmine, let’s see a whole new world.
The official title was Phasing Out Private Schools. But in truth, it could have been renamed the Boris Johnson Meeting. Because the room couldn’t stop talking about him, and about Eton.
Johnson is on course to be the second Etonian to be PM in the past three years, and the 20th in total. Eton fees are £40,000 a year. Private schools like Eton give the likes of Johnson the confidence to run for prime minister. Eton almost moved to Ireland in the 1960s when it was under threat of abolition under Harold Wilson and it’s a shame it didn’t.
It was frankly a miracle no one had reached out to pull his blond mop of hair
And by wonderful coincidence, Johnson himself had shambled along the committee room corridor as we waited to go in, beaming. Hello, he said to us all. Never miss a chance to schmooze a potential elector. He got little back. A hostile silence had descended.
And yet the minute he went away, the whole meeting couldn’t stop talking about him. “I hate Boris.” “I do too.” “No but I hate him more.” “Yeah he’s in my maths class.” “I know. He is…quite fit though, isn’t he?” “Eeugh no. But yes.” “Ohmygod look he’s coming! Totally ignore him right?” “Yeah, that showed him.” Let’s talk about him a bit more to just agree how much we hate him.
It was frankly a miracle no one had reached out to pull his blond mop of hair.
The actual purpose of the meeting was not to sit and draw “I heart Boris / I hate Boris” on our exercise books, but to mark the launch of the official Labour grassroots campaign to phase out private schools.
Except, whisper it, no one on the panel really made the full-throated attack on the sector that the crowd wanted.
Melissa Benn declared that we could have a 21st-century school system in 30 years. Robert Verkaik and Prof Francis Green, both authors of recent books on the “grotesqueness” of private schools, gave powerful speeches and said that bold steps should be taken. It seemed to be early days as to how exactly this should be done. It reminded me a bit of listening to one particular candidate for prime minister, but I couldn’t think who…
The questions from the floor were enjoyably left field. Has Theresa May deliberately underfunded state schools in order to prop up the private sector? Could we ban children from private schools from getting jobs at Goldman Sachs? Why, demanded one man who had written a book on how bad private schools are, was his book only referenced by one of the three panellists who had all recently written books on how bad private schools are?
Everyone seemed jolly, but nothing terribly firm seemed to have been suggested. Laura Smith MP closed the session with a passionate speech, but then apologised that she wasn’t actually part of the shadow education team. Earlier on, Kate Green MP had informed us that Angela Rayner would not be attending after all. Proof, I suppose, that you really don’t need to have gone to Eton like Boris Johnson to be politically savvy.
Simons is Schools Week’s occasional parliamentary sketch writer. He was reviewing an event titled ‘Phasing Out Private Schools held in Westminster on Wednesday.