Jayne Dowle: Going too far out of their way for the ‘right’ school

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I KNOW this woman. Let’s call her Sue. She has two teenage children and she lived in a nice detached house in a South Yorkshire village. Several years ago she persuaded her husband to take out another mortgage to buy another house. Not a seaside bolthole. Not a cottage in the countryside or a pied-a-terre in a city, but a cramped little terrace on the other side of town.

And why did she do this? Not as an investment, not to rent out, but so that her elder daughter would be in the catchment area for the best comprehensive school in the area. The family upped sticks, the children left behind their friends, and they all squashed into their new home, just so this girl could go to this particular school.

I have no idea if she knows the lengths her mother went to in order to secure her a place. However, I do know that her parents are exhausted. The plan to sell the original family home backfired when the recession hit and house prices plummeted. Her father was forced to take on two jobs in order to service two mortgages. And the stress and worry of this enormous financial outlay has put the whole family under pressure. Their ancient car is dropping to bits, and for as long as anyone can remember there have only been modest holidays.

You might think it’s been a sacrifice worth making. Personally I think it’s ridiculous. All that upset. All that cost. Just so a child can go to a certain school. That’s why I’m backing the new research led by Bristol University which calls for “lotteries” to allocate school places to children as young as four. They say that it’s not right that the intake for the most popular schools is dominated by those who can afford to live on their doorstep. They argue that selection by “mortgage size” is unfair and unjust and favours the most wealthy families. They make a very valid point, but it’s not just the most wealthy families who do it.

There is such a moral panic about education in this country that even ordinary families like the one I’m telling you about will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that their precious offspring gets that coveted letter of admission. I’ve heard of parents lying outright and telling the local authority that they live with relatives. I’ve heard of parents saying that they have split up, that a child will be bullied (when there is no evidence that they will) and all kinds of fantastical excuses to get their own way.

As a mother, I will always put my son and daughter first. However, I wouldn’t lie and cheat and set such a bad example to my own children. Such parents might think they are doing the right thing. To me though, this is not about the good of the child, it’s about the insecurity of the parents. It’s also selfish. It smacks of a “me first” culture which needs stamping out.

And ironically, it’s not always about actual bricks and mortar. There’s been a row over school buses in Barnsley recently. A mother who chose to send her daughter to a secondary school 10 miles away is complaining because the school bus service is a “farce”. She’s going there because the GCSE results at this particular school are much better than those at any of the local schools. The problem is, the school has become oversubscribed, and there aren’t enough school buses to go round. This poor child, just starting out in Year Seven, is being left behind when classes end for the day.

Imagine how that child feels. Not only has she been separated from her primary school friends, she’s now standing alone at a bus stop not knowing if and when she is going to get home. Is that what you would want for your child? Is the fear and insecurity this is likely to cause worth it? Would going to a school nearer home be any worse, however challenging the school itself might be?

If you’re stressing over which school your child should attend, you need to ask yourself all of these questions and answer them honestly. Don’t just look at the exam results, think what’s best for your child all round.

When the system has become as open to corruption as it appears, serious action needs to be taken. As this new report recommends, those in charge of allocating school places need to think, not just about (sensible) lotteries, but about the way they draw their catchment boundaries. And perhaps they even need to think about the social mix of their schools and what can be done to engineer a better balance of pupils from all backgrounds and abilities.

What everyone is losing sight of here is the bigger picture. The do-gooders gnash their teeth about under-performing schools and terrible exam results, but forget that many of these schools suffer because they are dominated by less-advantaged pupils left behind with no choice. For the good of all our children, not just our own, we should vow to take collective responsibility.