and you should see what’s for pudding…

We’ve had Freeview for a couple of weeks now, and ooh, do I feel the benefit. Eternal Digital TV and Radio in a box for one (modest) payment is a nice deal, and as both media got such bad reception on our standard aerial it has freed us to be a normal household, squaring our eyes and soothing our brains with on-air chat. Huzzah! On top of that we do get a few new channels, mostly bunk but some news, and the 2 digital-only ones from the BBC. BBC4 is really living up to my expectations at the moment, highlight of the past week being Martin Scorsese’s episode of “The Blues”, which managed to convey the significance of these early figures reverently but honestly, even for a novice like me.

Through last night’s viewing I stumbled across a format for a debate show unimaginable ten years ago: Dinner with Portillo. It’s a testament to the extent this man has transformed himself that he can be portrayed as the host of a meal for a disparate group of personalities, with heterogeneous political positions, nodding sagely and mediating between extremes rather than acting as one. Or at least, that’s how appears.

The show last night, ‘Education’, was purportedly about “the ethics of opting out of state education”, of whether it is defensible for people to send their kids to private schools, even if they are progressive and advocates of the state system. An interesting question to me, someone who went through private and state education, with good and bad tales of both. My mother was progressive; did she go against her ideals by allowing me to opt out of the state system? And if I were to choose the same for my kids in the future, where would that leave me? There are nuances, conflicts and contradictions in this decision that merit discussion, and did receive some on the program. Discussion of private education cannot go on without some recognition of the current state of the alternatives, and accordingly the talk opened into the problem of substandard state schools, the difficulties that minority kids face in bad schools in sink areas, the imperative felt by hard-working poor to propel their kids upward and give them the ladder that was never afforded them.

Unfortunately, as time went on, the nuances were swallowed up by increasingly heated partisan claims by a couple of state-haters, Melanie Phillips and Chris Woodhead. The latter used to run the school standards monitor OFSTED; both are columnists for right wing newspapers. The Daily Mail was our newspaper when I was a kid (don’t ask) and Phillips a regular in it, and one of the more regular stomach-turners: well articulated but brimming with vitriol and contempt for whatever her subject was. The whole point of the paper seems to be engendering in Middle England the sense that they are the most wronged species in all of Christendom, that variously the poor, women, immigrants (constantly) and state workers are lucky duckies, every one – and she has mastered that. Him, I know less of, but anyone, regardless of experience, who claims that state education will always failed, on the basis that we haven’t made it work over the past 30 years, is getting no gold stars from me. Bad boy, back of the class!

He proceeded to advocate the introduction of a voucher system for everyone, to spend on state or private education, and let the market improve things as the state isn’t capable. Prof Ted Wragg, education commentator, began to take him to task, as the only specialist defender of the state system who made any real input (Lisa Jardine, another UK professor, was billed as a ‘passionate advocate of state education’ but apart from her opening statements her input was fairly limited), at which point the Phillips ratched up the antagonism, accusing him of considering himself the only authority to make decisions about education (he didn’t), and then accussing him of shifting his story when he clarified what he had said. The debate had completely been reframed from whether we should feel guilty about using private education (which had been dealt with maturely, and generously toward those like guest Trevor Phillips who did use private education while still wanting the state to improve) to an argument that the state should subsidize private education and that the public should give up on trying to change state education.

How had this occurred? The makeup of the guests certainly contributed: Frances Gumley-Mason (an independent school head); Susan Greenfield (a peer and celebrity scientist who had very little to say despite her verbosity); Trevor Phillips (chairs the Commission for Racial Equality), on the show in part as a parent who sent their kids to private school; these people were never going to lambast private education. Introduce two media-savvy guests with a strong agenda to push, and make sure your two state defenders are both academics (allowing the elite and patronizing smear to be employed) and have some history in the system (Wragg has advised on some parliamentary commissions) and you can push and pull at the boundaries of the debate – except, of course, that a capable host will pull things back on track. Right?

Portillo was pretty restrained throughout, and I will readily concede that he was good in the format. If a charge was evaded or a question ignored, he would often pause proceedings and re-present it for consideration. He did this in a relaxed manner, and his shadow did not fall too heavily across the show. And yet he was quite prepared to let the show be hijacked by partisans with an agenda to push that was tangential to the proposed content. As I say, you can’t discuss private education without reference to state education and its limitations. But the discussion swept away from a discussion of the moral status of ‘buying’ a better future and to one too large for the program, on whether the state system is a failed experiment and the virtues of market driven services. Portillo seemed content enough with this, intervening at times but only to reformulate questions or push them further. The esperated Trevor Phillips took issue with this, well aware of what was going on, and bemused that brought on to discuss choosing private education he was forced into defending state education from these attacks. Net result is vouchers got heavy mention (if not true discussion), an expert pronounced state education a failure a few times; pretty good salvo for conservative education policy, all told. So I guess how good Portillo was depends on your perspective.

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