There are some cities that succumb to a form of mass hysteria when it comes to schooling, and Bristol is one of them. Its reputation as a bohemian hub, full of alternative and creative types, sits uneasily with the large number of families here who opt out of state education. My sons have seen a steady loss of their classmates from the local primary school to private prep schools over the years. Some parents admit that switching to the private sector at this early stage guarantees a place for a child who might otherwise fail the Year 7 entrance exam. Others focus on their child’s sensitivity or cleverness: Jasper would benefit from a more nurturing approach; Jessica wasn’t being stretched. All too often, it seems, the local primary isn’t good enough for some special snowflakes.
When the prospect of secondary education looms into view, those who remain loyal to the state sector begin to feel, preposterously, as though they’re swimming against the tide. In this part of town, private secondaries far outnumber state schools: there are at least seven within a two-mile radius of our house. Middle-class parents treat the idea of sending their child to the local comprehensive as some sort of social experiment; a risk that they aren’t prepared to take. The proximity of a well-known and prohibitively expensive public school means that they can justify their educational choices with the refrain, ‘At least it’s not Clifton College.’ They protest that they only want to do what’s best for their child, that their choice of school is nobody else’s business – and yet, in providing their child with an educational springboard, they may well be depriving a clever but less privileged child of an opportunity further down the line.
This unfair divide in our education system is on my mind because I’ve spent the last twelve months choosing a secondary school with my elder son. I’ve trudged around open days, questioned diffident adolescents about their favourite lessons and listened to head teachers rehearsing the USPs of their school. Meanwhile my son has dissected frogs, fiddled with Bunsen burners and watched endless re-runs of the school play. If I’m honest, I still can’t be sure which school will suit him best. There are too many imponderables that will affect his day-to-day experience – the class teacher, the cohort, and the development of his personality. All I can do is make an informed choice based on a combination of observations, data and gut feeling. And my decision? A deep breath, followed by a mumbled confession that lays bare my hypocrisy: he’ll be starting at an independent secondary school later this week.
I always thought I wouldn’t do it, while privately thinking less of parents who did. It seemed wrong – it still does – to buy an educational advantage in this way. Of course, there are many ways in which parents use money to boost their children’s chances in life – engaging a private tutor, for example, or moving to the catchment area of a better state school – but paying for private schooling is a decision on a much larger scale. It means that my son will mix almost exclusively with other middle-class kids on a daily basis. It’s almost certain to affect his world view.
Despite all of this, over the last year I’ve come to acknowledge that my child – small, shy and swotty – is likely to be happier and more successful at the school we’ve chosen than at the local secondary. As Year 7 has loomed ever larger on the horizon, my thinking has become more nuanced and my attitude has softened. (How convenient, I hear you say.) Could it be that private schools aren’t entirely populated by the offspring of florid-faced, braying Tories? Is it not possible to come from a privileged background and still be kind, polite and thoughtful?
The presence of an Ofsted-outstanding state primary school on my doorstep – small, nurturing and with a largely middle-class intake – has, until now, made it easy for me to align my actions with my principles. Our local comprehensive is a different proposition. It’s a large school with a broad social mix, where a higher than average proportion of children qualify for pupil premium. In theory, it was exactly the sort of education I wanted for my son, but that was before I visited. At the open day we witnessed several disruptive incidents which, while swiftly dealt with, meant that the teacher’s focus switched from imparting knowledge to crowd control. The main theme of the head teacher’s talk was disadvantaged pupils and lower achievers – rightly so, given the school’s demographic – but there was no mention of the provision for more able children. Against this backdrop, it seemed horribly elitist to ask about the patchy GCSE results. Fortunately, I didn’t have to: somebody else did, and the head’s response was unconvincing.
I’m aware of how this sounds. To express these concerns, even through the medium of a pseudonymous blog, makes me cringe. It immediately sets me up in opposition to parents who have chosen that school for their children (not to mention those who had no choice in the matter). To them, it will no doubt appear that I am criticising their decision in order to justify my own. And yet, how can a large inner-city school be expected to provide an outstanding education for all of its pupils when faced with real-term cuts to its budget? The reality is that it has to set priorities, and many pupils will lose out. Over the past year, some of Bristol’s secondaries have resorted to desperate measures: withdrawing lessons in ‘non-essential’ subjects, such as drama and sport; denying individual support to children with special needs; and pleading for parents to plug the gap in funding. Meanwhile the status of the teaching profession is downgraded while pressure is heaped on teachers, who are expected to do more with less, year on year. It’s profoundly depressing, and it’s not what I want for my son.
Now the autumn term is almost upon us, and it’s time to stop the self-flagellation. The choice is made, and it’s back to school. Although it’s tempting to preface any conversational reference to my elder son’s schooling with a set piece about how I struggled with my decision and am still not fully reconciled to it, this smacks of having it both ways: preserving a sense of myself as an essentially decent person, while reaping the benefits of an elite education for my child. And perhaps there’s more to the decision than I care to acknowledge. I went to a private school myself, and while there was much about it that I professed to hate, I can’t deny that it conferred certain benefits. I’ve come to recognise a perverse aspect of my personality: I’ve never been a joiner and yet I very much want to belong. I’ve always rather liked the security of being part of an institution – be it a school, university or profession – while publicly railing against it. The wood-panelled corridors of my son’s new school already feel familiar, although I’ve only set foot in the building a couple of times; perhaps, in the end, we all revert to type.