David Thompson


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May 17, 2009


John D

Hah! You've got to love the nerve. If parents prioritize their kids' education and scrape together the cash to pay for it, they're evil "privateers". They should be punished. Even if what they can afford is still less than Zoe Williams' parents spent on her (private) education.


“You’ve got to love the nerve.”

I’m not sure that it’s just a matter of nerve. It isn’t clear to me how self-aware Williams is. Maybe she thinks she’s being mischievous and provocative. Maybe it’s an obliviousness to contradiction, hypocrisy and bare-faced dishonesty. Maybe the hostility to parents who pay for private education has something to do with how Williams feels about her own comfortable upbringing. As with the Arabella Weir post linked above, the distinctions between incoherent politics, pretentious guilt and personal psychodrama aren’t entirely obvious.


People who pay for their kids education still have to pay for the state system they don't use. They pay twice. And Williams wants to bitch about them?


There's plenty of class war in the Guardian comments.

"I can't blame parents for sending their kids to private schools but the option shouldn't be there in the first place."


“…but the option shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Equality. Fraternity. Nasty urges to control.

Horace Dunn

"Can the parents provide a letter from any local leftwing organisation, attesting to their commitment to open-access state education?"

Clearly, if citizens are unable to demonstrate their ideological purity they should be denied the benefits that the state can provide. But Zoe, aren't you missing an opportunity here? These people need to be made an example of. I suggest they be paraded in the streets wearing dunce-caps and signs reading "class enemy" hanging from their necks.


I'm prepared to sacrifice my principles and force every Labour supporter and representative to send their children to the worst schools in the country.

Purely in the interests of egality, of course:-)



Well, it’s interesting that the most vehement endorsement of state education in the pages of the Guardian often comes from people whose actual experience of it is vicarious, theoretical or somewhat limited.

Several Guardian readers rushed to Williams’ defence, claiming she’s being “satirical”. But if she’s getting all Swiftian, her “satire” still reveals a gloating contempt for people who can’t afford the education they hoped to provide for their children. There’s an inescapable smell of malice when someone delights in the idea of punishing the children of parents deemed politically incorrect. When you scratch at socialism, loudly professed, there’s often something quite nasty lurking underneath.

Given the logical and moral incoherence of the piece, and others like it, I suspect Williams’ attitude has more to do with her own parental issues and attempts to deflect envy. Maybe we’re supposed to imagine that Williams’ Oxbridge education and spell at Godolphin and Latymer (which she carefully omits) had no impact whatsoever on her social contacts and subsequent career as a thrusting leftwing columnist.


"Nasty urges to control."

I think totalitarian is the word you want. The more I've seen of the left over the years the more I've become convinced that totalitarianism is one of its indispensable core components (along with socialism and utopianism).

With regard to the Guardian - what is the makeup of its readers? Are any of them likely to have children at state schools by choice or are they, as seems likely, all well-heeled hypocrites like the columnists? Would someone from the real working class, if such a thing still exists, seriously read it?


bgc -


"Alan Rusbridger was educated at Cranleigh School, a boys' independent school… and at Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge."


Does Zoe bitch about her boss and his kids? Isn't he rich enough (£520,000 p.a.) to count as a "privateer"?



If the purpose of Williams’ posturing is to deflect envy from below, as it were, Rusbridger’s expensive education probably wouldn’t bother her, except perhaps as a minor embarrassment. After all, she wouldn’t be trying to deflect envy from Rusbridger; merely from those *less fortunate* than herself.


"Williams’ attitude has more to do with her own parental issues and attempts to deflect envy."

I don't think envy is the principal factor here.

The Guardian writes as if it is anti-establishment. 30 seconds contemplation is sufficient to realise that has become the establishment. However this success has occurred at the same time as the idea of Socialism has declined as a viable blueprint for the future. What remains is just nihilism and elitism. "Everybody is venal and wicked"/"We are the technocrats who understand the best way to organise society. Trust Us."

My cynical side takes the view that educational failure and the consequent increase in demand for (Labour voting) outreach workers is not unintentional. Failure is a feature not a bug.



“I don’t think [deflecting] envy is the principal factor here.”

I’m not sure what the principal factor is. Williams’ ostensible reasoning is confused and doesn’t convince, and her spiteful tone is distinctly unappealing. And of the two, the tone seems much more genuine and could be a clue to her intent. The impression given is, as you say, one of nihilism and elitism, which is an odd combination.

“I’m prepared to sacrifice my principles and force every Labour supporter and representative to send their children to the worst schools in the country.:-)”

Williams’ colleague, Arabella Weir, seems to think along similar lines, albeit for slightly different reasons. She claims that using a school “representative of the area’s demographic” is “the right thing to do,” especially if that demographic includes the “disadvantaged” and the approved ethnic and socio-economic mix. The logical implication of Weir’s argument is that conscientious parents should wherever possible send their offspring to disreputable schools with plenty of rough council estate kids and people for whom English is at best a second language. This will help them “appreciate other kids from many diverse and different cultures” and be good for society, or something. It all sounds a wee bit sacrificial.


Though, as with Ms Williams, I suspect the actual motives may differ from those being declared. As indicated by Weir’s willingness to deceive readers regarding her own education and what it helped make possible.

John D

Best reader comment ever:

"I expect more wisdom and common sense from someone who writes for The Guardian."


The best way to look upon the Rusbridger era Guardian is as a superb emetic.

David Edgar's recent bigging up of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb was the one that really did it for me.


Basically Leftism is the faith that you can cure "bad apples" by putting them in "Clean Barrels".

When the barrels goes rotten it's "obvious" that there just weren't enough clean apples in the barrel.


Why is Williams a hypocrite? Can't she have an opinion just because her parents made that choice for her? Maybe she'll send her kids to a state school.



The point about Williams’ educational background is that it inevitably invites accusations that she’s pulling up the ladder behind her. Perhaps that’s why she failed to mention her own schooling, despite its relevance. As with Arabella Weir, there’s a sense that, having enjoyed the benefits of an expensive education and the social networks that tend to go with it, she doesn’t like others who pursue similar opportunities. If Williams sends her children to a state school, even a really crappy one, that doesn’t alter the fact she’s a beneficiary of what she denounces – and to a large extent her offspring will be too, irrespective of where they go to school. She’s already in a position to pass on at least some of the benefits.

And the essential meanness of Williams’ position remains either way. Would her article be more morally coherent if her education had been at a grim and demoralised comprehensive like the one I went to? I don’t see why it should be. Williams still likes the idea of punishing parents who attempted to spare their children such grimness and couldn’t quite manage it. That doesn’t sound like virtue or altruism to me. It sounds like something much less elevated. And if she deliberately inflicts a substandard education on her own children, supposedly out of egalitarian principal, that seems even worse.

Horace Dunn


I do think that rv has a point here. I don't want to defend Williams. In my view, her article suggests that she's a very silly and unpleasant woman. But is she a hypocrite? The fact that she's done well out of the system doesn't preclude her expressing opinions about the fairness of that system.

Perhaps it might have shown more grace had she been open about the social and educational advantages she has enjoyed. Perhaps. But I’m reminder here of the stick that Ben Elton used to get beaten with for wearing sparkly jackets. How can a left-wing comedian stand up and rail against Thatcher while wearing a posh jacket? Well, what should he wear? A cloth cap and hand-me-down trousers?

Williams’ educational background might well invite “accusations that she’s pulling up the ladder behind her” but that doesn’t mean that such accusations are fair. And while she is enjoying the advantages of her background, and, as you say will pass some of those advantages to her children (even despite herself), if she feels that the system that permits this is unfair, why should she not be allowed to say it?

I agree with you about the “essential meanness” of her position but, as you point out, that position would be no more “morally coherent” had she come from a different background. So perhaps it is unhelpful to harp on it? If she decides to hamper her own children (if she has any) out of adherence to her professed dogmatic principles, that’s another issue but since we know nothing about her children (if there are any) or her plans for them, we might show ourselves the better for leaving this out of the argument.


Horace & rv,

“…why should she not be allowed to say it?”

I don’t recall arguing that Williams wasn’t allowed to have an opinion on the subject; just that she should come up with one that’s more coherent and convincing, and perhaps more honest. Disguising Schadenfreude and vindictiveness as egalitarian virtue sounds pretty hypocritical to me, even if the disguise fails. Suspicions of hypocrisy and dissembling also arise for the reasons stated earlier. Having reaped the benefits of such schooling and as a result being in a position to *pass those benefits on* to any offspring (to some extent irrespective of where she might, in theory, send them), Williams isn’t the best model for the case she hopes to make. It’s easy to badmouth “elitism” and champion “parity” if you and your children won’t be quite so subject to the “parity” you have in mind.

And if we suppose Williams were to subject her theoretical children to a suitably indifferent school in the interests of “parity” – ostensibly to undo any “unfair” advantage – that would also seem to undermine any claims of moral probity. Should one’s children be *voluntarily* sentenced to a substandard education in the interests of egalitarian ideology? Is what a good parent does? Will her theoretical children be grateful? Should they be? You see the contradiction?

And, like quite a few of her readers, Williams seems to assume that parents who can afford private education exist as some discrete and uniform “privileged” class, as if a great many of those parents don’t have to work hard or go without other things in order to widen their children’s opportunities. There’s no acknowledgement that people may have to *prioritise* their spending, favouring their children’s education over, say, holidays or new cars. This oversight may suit Williams’ class war rhetoric and the prejudice of her readers, but I’m not sure it matches reality. Or her pretensions of righteousness.

There’s also something odd about celebrating “regular teachers and parents who were never trying to create an elite, who believed in parity.” What, then, of excellence? How does talent – which is by definition “unfairly” distributed - sit with the kind of egalitarian “parity” that Williams seems to have in mind? In my experience, state schooling was demoralised (and demoralising) precisely *because* of the egalitarian dogma of the people running it.

John D

"Should one's children be *voluntarily* sentenced to a substandard education in the interests of egalitarian ideology? Is what a good parent does? Will her theoretical children be grateful? Should they be?"

Spot on, David. From the Guardian comments:

"Thank God for champagne socialists! My privately educated father proudly sent me to a comprehensive, bravely sacrificing my education for his beliefs, where I spent four years getting the sh*t kicked out of me for being too posh. Ah... great times. I wish Zoe Williams had benefited from that experience"




“My privately educated father proudly sent me to a comprehensive, bravely sacrificing my education for his beliefs, where I spent four years getting the sh*t kicked out of me for being too posh. Ah... great times.”

Exactly, and it’s not a trivial point. At my comprehensive, one of my classmates arrived from a much posher school and was much posher (and smarter) than the average for the class. I’m guessing his family had fallen on hard times and had been obliged to settle for Hell Comprehensive. He was frequently on the receiving end of teasing, jostling and snubbing, despite him being one of the most polite and unthreatening people there. Or rather, precisely *because* of that. And bear in mind this treatment even persisted in what was supposedly the “A” stream of the school. (Unlike me, he hadn’t mastered the art of hurling chairs at his assailants.)

So I’m inclined to wonder if Zoe Williams would be willing to inflict that kind of treatment on her own theoretical children, while admiring her egalitarian credentials. Perhaps Williams would avoid a school of that kind and search out something a little less rough and ready. But if so, that doesn’t exactly support her argument.

John D

"I'm inclined to wonder if Zoe Williams would be willing to inflict that kind of treatment on her own theoretical children"

Not theoretical- Williams has a son... called Thurston.


So he'd never get bullied at the local comp. Hah.

Mary Jackson

Interestingly, Zoe Williams focuses on primary schools, with a magnificent bit of bet hedging:

"I concentrate on primary schools, because decisions at secondary level are a bit more momentous, so take longer to reflect a change in economic conditions."

A lot of hypocritical Lefties - and is there any other kind? - do the "local schools for local people" bit at the primary stage, where there is less stabbing and crack dealing, and Little Thurston or whoever can be made to read and sent to violin lessons in his spare time. Then when it comes to the secondary stage there is a mysterious change. No longer so little, and no longer so easy to keep from the stabbers and the crack dealers, Thurston is discovered to have special gifts, or, as with Diane Abbot, is black so automatically disadvantaged. Out comes the cheque book. The primary school "sacrifice" now serves as a shield.

Watch this space.



“The primary school ‘sacrifice’ now serves as a shield.”

Exactly, it’s a rhetorical deflection. What’s remarkable isn’t so much the pattern of hypocrisy, though the pattern is fairly striking; it’s the sheer *transparency* of the ruse. That these manoeuvres aren’t laughed at more frequently suggests a large number of readers find them acceptable, perhaps even principled. Which is almost funny. Still, there’s that wonderful moment of anticipation when, having read a piece like this, you think, “Hm. Maybe I should Google the writer’s own school background. Just in case…”

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