Tuesday briefing: What a row over Starmer’s school choice tells us about the state of education

Good morning. Keir Starmer’s policy of ending the VAT exemption for private schools is not all that new, and not all that radical: it’s been Labour policy for five years, Michael Gove suggested the same thing in 2017 (£), and Gove’s former policy adviser Sam Freedman says that a tiny number of independent schools would be threatened by the change. It’s a popular, progressive idea, but it’s not going to transform the UK’s education system.

It has, nonetheless, come under furious attack. First, the Daily Mail conjured two front pages about it from thin air. Then Starmer leaned into the row by bringing it up at prime minister’s questions. This weekend, the furore reached its predictable zenith: a search for hypocrisy on Starmer’s part by the Mail on Sunday. The resulting story felt, in all honesty, pretty thin: Starmer sends his children to … state school. But that school, in the Mail on Sunday’s telling, is a “state-run prep school for the middle class”. Gotcha!

The thing is: cartoonish though the Mail on Sunday’s account was, there is something complicated, and important, here. Starmer has every right to send his kids to the outstanding primary in question, Eleanor Palmer, having lived a stone’s throw away since 2004 – but it’s also true that the better it’s done by its disadvantaged pupils, the fewer of them there have been.

Today’s newsletter, with Lee Elliot Major, a leading expert on education and social mobility and a former Eleanor Palmer parent, is about what the story of one school has to tell us about the vexed question of what middle-class parents owe to their own children, and to everybody else. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Housing | Rishi Sunak is to drop compulsory housebuilding targets to see off an embarrassing backbench rebellion, prompting criticism he is putting party unity above the national interest. Around 100 Tory MPs had threatened to back an amendment rejecting the 300,000 homes a year target.

  2. Strikes | Hopes of a deal to avert severe Christmas rail disruption were dashed on Monday night when the RMT union announced additional strike dates and rebuffed a pay offer from Network Rail just before the industry’s deadline.

  3. Politics | Matt Hancock has claimed that the Conservative peer Michelle Mone pressured him using “extraordinarily aggressive” lobbying tactics for a company bidding to supply Covid tests during the pandemic.

  4. Monarchy | A black British charity leader who was asked where she “really came from” by an aide at a Buckingham Palace royal reception has said she has suffered “horrific abuse” on social media. Ngozi Fulani said that she and her family had felt “immense pressure” since the incident.

  5. Television | Kirstie Alley, the TV and film star known for her roles in Cheers, Veronica’s Closet and Look Who’s Talking, has died at the age of 71. Ted Danson, her co-star in Cheers, called her “truly brilliant”.

In depth: ‘An amazing school on our doorstep’

‘Kate Gate’ at Eleanor Palmer school in Kentish Town.
‘Kate Gate’ at Eleanor Palmer school in Kentish Town, London. Photograph: Archie Bland

Lee Elliot Major is the former chief executive of education charity the Sutton Trust, the UK’s first professor of social mobility, and holder of an OBE. When he moved to Tufnell Park – the neighbourhood of Starmer’s Holborn and St Pancras constituency where Eleanor Palmer is based – in 2003, he was none of those things. “We were part of that last generation who didn’t have high salaries but could just about get a house somewhere like that,” he said. “And then we realised there was this amazing school on our doorstep.”

Eleanor Palmer has been an amazing, and popular, school for years. Before the current top designation of “outstanding” was introduced in 2005, it got a 2002 report (PDF) that called it a “good and effective school that gives good value for money”. After the 2003 arrival of a universally praised head teacher, Kate Frood, a 2011 inspection (PDF) graded it as outstanding, exempting it from further inspections, and approvingly quoted a parent’s summary: “Eleanor Palmer is an absolutely wonderful school – warm, nurturing, extremely well led and managed, with excellent teaching and a very inclusive ethos.”

As well as its results, this farewell video put together for Frood’s retirement in 2021 suggests what a wonderful place it obviously still is. I lived nearby until recently and would regularly walk past “Kate Gate”, pictured above, which was installed for the same occasion and urges pupils: “take risks”, “persevere”, “don’t be late”, and “include everyone”.

How the school changed: ‘sharp-elbowed warriors’

The story of Tufnell Park since Elliot Major arrived there is a microcosm of London in the same period: unrelenting gentrification, with mixed consequences for the disadvantaged residents who remain. As you would expect, that change was visible in Eleanor Palmer, too. In 2002, about one-third of pupils were eligible for free school meals; by this year, that figure had dropped to 16%, against a nationwide total of 23%.

Elliot Major’s children arrived there in the late 2000s. “As an older cohort, we were aware that the nature of the school was fundamentally shifting,” he said. “You could see it. There was a close-knit community, all down the local pub together – it was a lovely time in our lives. And then that sense of community did not quite seem to be there in the same way.” One measure of the increased competition for places: in 2010, the school had to move the point from which the catchment area was measured (£) from the school gates to the centre of the playground after complaints that some applicants were gaining an unfair advantage.

A new cohort, who Elliot Major describes as “sharp-elbowed warriors obsessed with getting the best education for their children”, were ready to take extreme measures to secure a place. In 2013, the Evening Standard reported that disappointed parents were aggrieved at being beaten to a spot by others who had temporarily rented nearby accommodation – a phenomenon I experienced personally when, lacking the offspring to capitalise on my own proximity, I received two unsolicited but lucrative offers from would-be parents to temporarily rent my flat. (Fearing a lifetime of shame when going past the school gates, I said no.) In 2014, Kate Frood described this phenomenon as “annoying”; I’ve heard an Eleanor Palmer teacher use riper language than that.

In 2015, Times columnist and local resident Giles Coren – pictured here judging an Eleanor Palmer baking contest two years earlier – wrote a frothingly angry piece decrying the “lying, cheating, hypocritical, Guardian-reading, middle-class, north London, Corbynite scum” renting nearby and forcing him to send his daughter private. “A lot of the community took real umbrage at that,” Elliot Major said. “Other people didn’t have that same option if they didn’t get in.”

What the changes meant for the children who didn’t get in

On one level, the consequences for the disadvantaged children who might once have attended schools like Eleanor Palmer are obvious: fewer of them get in, and so fewer of them get places at an outstanding school.

But it’s complicated. “You have to remember with this debate that a lot of good results at highly popular ‘destination’ state schools are down to the children that go there in the first place,” Elliot Major said. “A lot of the variation is down to the home environment.”

Some argue that sharp-elbowed parents can help raise standards for everyone, not just their own kids. As Frood said in that 2014 interview, Eleanor Palmer has “a critical mass of high-achieving … middle-class kids – so all my working-class or refugee kids get caught up”.

On the other hand, Elliot Major said, “one of the quandaries in the research is that in some high-performing schools, poorer children don’t do that well. It may be that mixed schools are more expert in helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“What you want, in the end, is more mixed schools, and mixed communities, where everyone benefits,” Elliot Major said. “That’s how you get real social mobility.”

What privileged parents owe their schools

Elliot Major is not surprised at the attacks on Starmer: “Taking on the private school sector is always going to generate a backlash,” he said. And, honestly, it looks pretty hard to justify in this case. Starmer lives so close to Eleanor Palmer, and has been a resident for so long, that the only functional argument against his children’s right to a place there is to say that they should be forcibly sent to private school to free up spots for others.

At the same time, Elliot Major said: “There is a lot of hypocrisy among liberal elites on this subject. People use their money in different ways to stay ahead, and buying a house is a way of doing that. We’re all hypocrites to some extent – I’ve paid for tutoring for my own children. You have to be really careful about judging people.”

In the end, he says, the best a school with little control over its composition can hope for is “genuinely reflecting the community, and having parents who are committed to that. One thing we see in some of these cases is very individualistic behaviour, where parents are not necessarily interested in the school community as a whole – they just want to know how it will help their child.”

How to fix the bigger problem

Castigating the Labour leader for sending his children to their local school seems unlikely to do very much for the education system; nor does the marginal measure of charging VAT on private school fees. But more radical steps seem a long way off. One suggestion to help close the attainment gap between rich and poor, from the Association of School and College Leaders last year, is to ringfence places for disadvantaged pupils who live further away from oversubscribed schools. Elliot Major takes a similar view: “We have to do more to challenge this situation – prioritising [disadvantaged] pupils in the admissions process, or having lotteries for places.”

In the end, though, there is a bigger picture, perhaps illustrated by the expectation that, even if Keir Starmer’s children hadn’t been entitled to a place at Eleanor Palmer, they would have been absolutely fine. “I know kids who went there who haven’t gone on to university, who haven’t had those chances,” Elliot Major said. “We don’t do well enough by those children. That’s the problem that gnaws away at me.”

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What else we’ve been reading

Lindsay Lohan in Falling for Christmas.
Lindsay Lohan in Falling for Christmas. Photograph: Scott Everett White/Netflix
  • Who doesn’t love a cheesy made-for-TV Christmas film? If you’re tired of rewatching the classics, Stuart Heritage sets out the best and worst new festive movies. Spoiler alert: there’s a lot of plaid. Nimo

  • Begin your traditional December arguing about television with the first instalment of the Guardian’s rundown of the best shows of the year. I’ll reserve my complaints until I see what’s number one. Archie

  • Six months after the murder of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Amazon rainforest, Tom Phillips reflects on the ongoing dangers posed to environmental activists and what the future of holds as Jair Bolsonaro leaves office. Nimo

  • Social psychologist Steve Reicher is good on how the death of 10 Uyghurs in Xinjiang province sparked a period of unrest over lockdown that shook China. He writes: “No regime – not even the mighty Chinese state – can entirely withstand being seen as an alien power.” Archie

  • Steven Morris spoke to Rhianon Bragg, whose life has been derailed by an ex-partner who stalked her and held her at gunpoint for eight hours. Now he could be released and her life has been put on hold: “I just want us to be able to live in our home freely, free of the threat from a known perpetrator. It feels like a massive ask but it shouldn’t.” Nimo

World Cup

Neymar of Brazil celebrates with Raphinha, Lucas Paqueta and Vinicius Junior after scoring the team’s second goal against South Korea.
Neymar of Brazil celebrates with Raphinha, Lucas Paqueta and Vinicius Junior after scoring the team’s second goal against South Korea. Photograph: François Nel/Getty Images

Brazil swept South Korea aside in their last-16 tie, racing into a 4-0 lead within 36 minutes before eventually winning 4-1. Sid Lowe wrote that the performance “felt like a statement” and “a homage” to Pelé, who is seriously ill: “Not because they won or scored four, but because they danced, together … above all, because they played.”

In the other fixture, Croatia knocked Japan out on penalties after coming from behind to salvage a 1-1 draw. Nick Ames writes that Croatia’s victory was “the triumph of deliberate knowhow over slick, joyful but sometimes loose entertainment”. They will face Brazil in the quarter-finals.

Today’s fixtures are Morocco v Spain and Portugal v Switzerland. Meanwhile, here’s a scouting report on France to whet your appetite for Saturday’s quarter-final against England. David Hytner writes about Gareth Southgate’s first World Cup memory, of Bryan Robson scoring twice against France in 1982. And Kim Willsher reports from Paris on how the French media is covering the build-up: L’Équipe has a picture of Kylian Mbappé with the headline: “God Save Notre [Our] King”.

For all the latest on Qatar, from the scandal to the scores, sign up to Football Daily – our free, sometimes funny, newsletter.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 6 December 2022
Photograph: Guardian

The Tuesday print edition of the Guardian leads with “PM backs down on housing goals in face of pressure from Tory MPs”. The Telegraph says “Sunak abandons housing target” while the i has “Antibiotics en masse for children in Strep A schools”. “1 in 7 denied GP appointment” – that’s the Times, which has a picture of Meghan wiping her eyes while her husband watches, headlined “Royal life’s a dirty game, claims Harry”. On the same subject, the Metro says “Oh no, here we go again” though its splash is “Ghost train tickets scandal” about cancelled services. The Sun has “Sussex, lies and videotape”, saying that a trailer for their Netflix show uses footage of a press pack following Katie Price, not the duke and duchess as is claimed. The Daily Mail says “Fury at Sussexes’ Netflix claim of ‘war on Meghan’” while in the Daily Express it’s “All-out war! Now Harry says Palace played ‘dirty game’”. “Keep calm & carry on” – that’s “Kane’s message to stars”, says the Daily Mirror, after Raheem Sterling’s home was burgled. The top story in today’s Financial Times is “Oil tanker jam gathers off Turkey as launch of Russia oil cap halts sailings”.

Today in Focus

Far right Israeli lawmaker and ‘Jewish Power’ party leader Itamar Ben Gvir
Photograph: Amir Levy/Getty Images

The far-right radical in Israel’s new government

Itamar Ben-Gvir has spent a lifetime on the fringes of Israeli politics. He was once considered so extreme that he wasn’t allowed to serve in the Israeli army. Now he is the country’s security minister. Bethan McKernan reports.

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

Steve Bell on Keir Starmer v the House of Lords
Illustration: Steve Bell/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Zandile Ndhlovu, the ‘Black Mermaid’.
Zandile Ndhlovu, the ‘Black Mermaid’. Photograph: Zander Botha/Courtesy of Black Mermaid Foundation

Zandile Ndhlovu was born in Soweto, Johannesburg, and grew up far from the ocean – she was about 12 when saw a large body of water for the first time. Ndhlovu was taught that the sea was a dangerous place, an apprehension that came from a real place: as many as four people drown every day in South Africa, and almost all of them are black. This did not deter her, though, and Ndhlovu eventually became the country’s first black female freediving instructor. She has made it a personal mission to address misconceptions about who should be an instructor and a qualified swimmer and a goal to teach young people to feel at home in the sea through her foundation, the Black Mermaid. “[The kids] feel empowered. Most of [them] are afraid, they jump out and cling on to the buoy screaming if they see a fish,” Ndhlovu says. “You can feel the fear. But fear, sometimes we need to walk into it. It’s so important to get the kids in the water.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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