Of smacking and schools; a story of odd class alliances in British politics.

How depressing that the debate on smacking children, like that of a woman’s right to choose and sex education ( which never seems to go away ) has reared its head once more. I was astonished, and somewhat appalled, to hear a discussion on the Today programme recently about whether poor children were becoming too ‘dependent’ on breakfast clubs. Jill Kirby, a commentator on Conservative Home, argued that schools should find out why families were not providing breakfast for their children and if so, what were they spending their money on/they should be called in to school to account for themselves and so on. But these are the Tory times we live in.

It makes for some odd alliances, as Zoe Williams cannily identified in today’s G2. Liberals – who take a clear position against smacking children, on the grounds that it is ..er wrong, and violent, and a poor role model for human behaviour etc – find themselves caught in a pincer movement between some black and working class parents who advocate stern discipline and an upper class tendency to advocate corporal punishment. So the liberal looks stupid and ineffectual and soft and not understanding of poverty and its implications and a threat to authority…all of that, rolled into one, while the working class/upper class alliance seem to stand united in defence of stern authority and high standards.

This strange, and often disingenuous, class collaboration has resonance for the schools debate as well. Here, too, we see the odd conflation of different positions/perspective. So, the current government – here, representing upper middle class support of the striking inequality in our school system – encouraging families with absolutely no access to the expensive schools to which they send their own offspring, to abandon the idea of high quality universal education, in favour of quasi private schools that will either benefit largely the affluent – Bristol Free School is probably the clearest current example – or will provide such a diluted version of ‘an education’ that no upper middle class family would ever dream of setting foot in them, let alone using them for their own child.

In the middle, the ‘liberal’ or social democratic position, which argues for a coherent tax payer funded system for quality, universal education – ensuring equal access for the poorest as well as the children from the richest homes – is relentlessly mis represented and traduced as a soft option, deliberately designed to foster low educational standards and poor discipline/boundaries despite the contrary evidence of those countries that have consistently and intelligently invested in universal state education. No matter. This is Tory England. So Michael Gove and co continously stoke dissatisfaction with our state education system, apparently in the name of the poorest families, while, much more quietly, ensuring superior educational options for the better off and new profit making possibilities for their better off mates.
As Steve Richards suggest, in his excellent three part Radio 4 series on The Big Society, there’s still no better word for this than Thatcherism.