What’s wrong with my school for your son? State head challenges Clegg

Academy principal insists deputy PM does not need to turn to private education for Antonio

Nick Clegg, who suggested last week that he would send his son to a private school if he failed to find a place in a good comprehensive, has not visited the state school closest to his home, according to its headteacher.

Mark Phillips, the principal of Ark Putney Academy, said he believed the deputy prime minister had no need to pay for the education of his eldest son. Phillips said that his school, the closest to Clegg’s family home in Putney, south-west London, could provide an “exceptional” education for any child who bought into its values and ethos.

But the head, who took over after the school was put into special measures three years ago, said unless Clegg had visited “under cover”, he had not been to the academy, previously known as Elliott school. The deadline for applications for secondary school places in the area for entry in 2013/14 passed last October.

Phillips said: “If a child does come to us I am confident they will do exceptionally well. I don’t believe that you have to pay for it: it’s a great school that offers many opportunities. Unless he came under cover, I don’t think he has been for a visit.”

Phillips, whose school was lauded by Nick Gibb, then schools minister, last year as one of the top 100 in the country for improved attainment, added: “I am always very clear that all parents living locally are welcome to choose our school and it is important that every parent comes with their child and takes an objective look to see whether what we offer will meet the needs of their child.

“I wouldn’t claim to be the answer to every child and every parent. But I hope that if a parent does come, and sees an environment their child will thrive in, they will pick us.”

Clegg suggested that his eldest son may be sent to a private school during one of his regular appearances on a weekly phone in show on LBC radio. He said he and his wife Miriam are having to decide on Antonio’s next school as he is due to leave his state primary in Putney this summer.

“If it works out to send them to a good state [secondary] we will do so but, like all parents sending their children to secondary school in London, as you know there is huge competition for places.

“It’s not about whether it’s private or public … it can be either. I just want the best for my child, and that’s what I think most people listening to this programme want for their children.” Clegg will be under particular scrutiny because he has talked about the huge social division caused by private education.

Clegg, educated at the independent Westminster school in London, said in a speech last year: “Right now there is a great rift in our education system between our best schools, most of which are private, and the schools ordinary families rely on. That is corrosive for our society and damaging to our economy.”

Phillips told The Observer that his school had seen a spike in applicants for the coming academic year, and praised the Ark Academy chain, whose chairman is Paul Marshall, one of the Liberal Democrats’ biggest donors.

However, the school was given the green light by education secretary Michael Gove last year to sell 41% of its grounds, including six tennis courts, a football pitch and a playground, to fund a refurbishment. It had been due for a £40m revamp under the Building Schools for the Future programme but that was cancelled by Gove in 2010.

A former teacher at the school, Di Bindman, 65, said Clegg appeared to believe it was only good enough for “plebs”. A spokesman for Clegg said: “Nick and Miriam are currently considering a number of schools for their eldest son but no decision has been made.

“They have always refused to turn their children’s education into a political football. Nick accepts that when a decision is made it will be subject to commentary but his overwhelming priority as a father is to do what is best for his children.”

History lesson

The academy, originally called Elliott school, was built in the 1950s. Its assembly hall was the location for the Christmas pageant in Richard Curtis’s 2003 film Love Actually. Its alumni include actor Piers Brosnan, 1960s England bowler Geoff Arnold and 2010 Mercury prize-winning band the xx. Former Welsh secretary Peter Hain sent his children to the school.

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