Grant Woodward: Desperate lengths we go to for our children’s education

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FOR parents across the country, Monday is D-Day. March 3 is when the letter telling them which secondary school their son or daughter will be attending in September thuds on to their doormat.

In advance of National Offer Day, as this excruciating ritual is known, mothers and fathers up and down the land have spent the past few weeks waking up in the small hours in states of blind panic, fretting that it won’t be the high-achieving high school they end up with but the failing one down the road.

This year, one in five children will be denied their first choice, bombshell news that will be the trigger for floods of tears and more than a few tantrums. And that’s just the parents. Some will promptly opt to appeal, others will take the nuclear option and go private. Then there are those who will feel they have no choice but to up sticks and move to a house on the doorstep of their preferred school.

And it is this latter group that is fast attracting the sort of opprobium normally reserved for North Korean dictators and people who smoke in their cars. The middle classes are never more sharp-elbowed than when it comes to securing a half-decent education for their offspring. Indeed, such are the desperate lengths we will go to that anyone would think we actually paid taxes for the privilege.

It won’t be until April next year that we get our own letter telling us where our twins will be going to primary school. But that hasn’t stopped my wife spending large chunks of the night staring at the ceiling and mentally running through all the various permutations in her increasingly fraught mind.

And we’re the lucky ones. The other evening I inexplicably (I can only think it was a mild case of folie à deux) stayed up until long after midnight finding the schools nearest to where we live. I then proceeded to enter their postcodes into little boxes on a website which calculated the distance from our home as the crow flies, this being the measurement the education authority uses to allocate places.

From this and a lengthy trawl of the Ofsted website, I was able to piece together a picture of our chances. And it turns out they’re rather good. Of our nine closest primary schools, five are rated as outstanding. Given that only six per cent in the country attain this status, those are pretty decent odds.

Yet this hasn’t stopped my wife worrying to the point of exhaustion as to whether they will get into the oversubscribed ‘good’ one just down the road from us, or be given the not-so-good one with plenty of places a bit further away. And she’s not the only one.

A friend of ours has already been on to the council asking where his daughter will go to school in September 2016. Discovering that his favoured ‘outstanding’ primary is 65m further away from him than his ‘over my dead body’ option, he’s already scoping out private schools and threatening to fight the education authority every inch (or metre) of the way.

For our part, we have spent evenings driving around the local area sussing out where we would need to move to in order to be assured of a place at an outstanding school of our choosing. Or just to increase the odds of getting into the oversubscribed ‘good’ one nearest to us.

Needing to leave our cramped home anyway, we have started looking at a couple of options nearby and realised to our horror (and begrudging admiration) just how far parents like us are prepared to go to assure their children of a good school.

A house that on the surface didn’t have any particularly sought-after qualities was being marketed at around £25,000 more than similar properties just a few streets away. The reason? This one was in the catchment area for both an outstanding primary school and an outstanding high school.

It’s why the chirpy vendor had managed to clock up 22 viewings in just five days of it being on the market. With an asking price nearly three-and-half times the amount she paid for it just over a decade earlier, you got the impression she couldn’t quite believe her luck.

She told us she had already had a close-to-asking-price offer. Sure enough another couple, complete with young child, arrived to view it while we were still there. And they put in an offer as well.

It is precisely this “school selection by mortgage” that the Government and schools are now looking to crack down on. A growing number of schools are starting to admit pupils not according to their proximity to the front gates but on the basis of a lottery.

Those middle class parents who have mortgaged themselves up to the hilt in a bid to secure a decent schooling for their beloved sons and daughters are now finding the Habitat rug unceremoniously pulled from under their feet.

In a ham-fisted sociological experiment that uses our children as guinea pigs, one in 12 schools is opting to dispense with traditional catchment areas in order to engineer a broader cross-section of pupils and thus put a stop to the middle-class stranglehold on places at the best establishments.

It means that instead of a berth at the top-rated school you moved so close to that you can smell the basil penne wafting out of the kitchens, your children are at risk of being parachuted into a failing school on the other side of town.

The ideology behind this system is that it gives poorer children equal access to top schools. The only trouble is that it doesn’t actually work. Brighton opted to go down this route in 2008, but a study two years later found that, if anything, socio-economic segregation had increased slightly, although some students from wealthier neighbourhoods were now attending less academically successful secondaries than they might have expected to previously.

In other words there were no winners, just losers, especially those who were forced to travel long distances to schools that simply weren’t up to scratch.Really though, this desperate stab at injecting “equality” into the school admissions process misses the point completely.

The idea of “good schools” being monopolised by the middle classes is an utter red herring. It ignores the fact such schools achieve good results because they have a high proportion of middle class children who receive far higher levels of help and support at home.

Good schools are not magical places that have cracked the secrets of education and are staffed by a crack team of superteachers, just as so-called bad schools are not all crumbling hell-holes with teachers that don’t care and stabbings in the playground.

The best way to redress the balance is not by busing children from one side of town to the other, but putting more resources into those schools that are left to fill the gap in terms of the support some youngsters are simply not getting at home.