When I asked boys, particularly black boys I used to teach, what they hoped to be later in life, they would invariably say “a footballer”. GCSE and A-level choices were made on the understanding that one day a professional football career would somehow materialise. Such decisions were taken without any real indication of success in football: no place in a national team, or even a school team, no training, nothing. When I used to insist that they needed a plan B because football was an unlikely avenue, they would joke and respond: “Is it cos I is black, Miss?”
Boys in our inner cities who kick a ball around for a couple of hours a day to pass the time, and have an hour or two of “games” once a week in a field far away from their school, have no idea of the gruelling training that is required to become a professional footballer. Neither do they realise that there is a bunch of private schoolboys who understand this all too well.
Arsenal and England’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is one of those private schoolboys. At 18, this young black footballer is the perfect inspiration for thousands of our inner-city boys. But these boys won’t understand how his father, Mark Chamberlain, who was himself a professional footballer, was a crucial part of his son’s success. Father and son would sit and watch videos of the boy playing football, and Mark would advise Alex on how to improve. Dad would race Alex in the park, argue with the clubs on behalf of his son, and both mum and dad made the necessary sacrifices to pay the fees at St John’s College, Southsea, where glorious sports fields are on site and competition isn’t frowned upon.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, recently pointed to the success of our public schoolboys in the world of sport. It turns out they aren’t just good at Latin and Greek. Half of the UK’s gold medallists at the last Olympics were privately educated. As the writer and former cricketer Ed Smith has shown, while in 1987 the majority of England cricketers were state-educated, nowadays most cricketers, most rugby players, and more and more professional footballers (traditionally a working-class sport) are educated privately. Mark Chamberlain might have been a working-class boy but his son is nothing of the sort. Indeed, had Oxlade-Chamberlain had his father’s childhood, he would not have had access to the resources, the rigour, and the sense of competition that only our private and the very best of state schools can provide these days.
Schools ought to equip children with the capacity to change their fate. But it has been argued that the demise of grammar schools is the reason why more and more children of bankers become bankers and why children from more humble backgrounds never manage to alter their destinies.
In comparison to America, Britain has a very small black middle class. The Oprahs, Cosbys, Powells and Rices of Britain are few and far between. Unlike Barack Obama’s children, the majority of black Britons depend on the state for their education. Few manage to get to the best universities or go on to populate the professions and corridors of power. Some middle-class people believe it is one’s duty to “support” the state sector by sending one’s own children into it, despite having the financial resources to do otherwise. Seek not what is best for your own child, but what is best for society. Apparently, sending your little cherub into an environment where he can be bullied and threatened or, at best, just not learn very much, is somehow to do what is “best for society”. Such thinking is now so endemic that it would simply be unthinkable for David Cameron to send his children to private schools, and expect to remain prime minister. Yet across the pond, a Democrat president who thinks nothing of privately educating his children is adored by the very same Britons who sacrifice their own children to the state sector every day.
Perhaps Mark Chamberlain should have done as many middle-class families in this country do: send his son to a state school to uphold a political ideology. Elsewhere, parents sacrifice holidays, expensive dinners and frivolity to pay for their children’s school fees. In Britain, people sacrifice their children in order to justify their political beliefs.
But somehow, like Obama, members of the moral police permit Chamberlain to send his son to a private school. They quietly forgive the indiscretion and are able to rejoice in his son’s success. Black families who can afford it are increasingly choosing to educate their children privately. They don’t feel a warped sense of duty to society that would force them to abandon their children to second-best. And society forgives them. It even forgave Diane Abbott for sending her son to a private school when she had vocally defended state schools for years.
Perhaps it’s cos they is black, innit?