A London council is hoping to encourage well-off parents to shun private schools in favour of state education by backing a grassroots scheme encouraging parents to consider their local comprehensive.
Camden Council is supporting the Meet the Parents organisation to run events that help shatter the "myths" around local schools that drive parents out of the borough to private and selective schools.
The group arranges for parents with children already at the borough’s schools to talk to wary families who are considering where to apply for their child’s secondary education. It is the first time a local authority has officially backed the group – which has already independently held similar events at schools in Islington, Haringey and Barnet.
Around 30 per cent of children in Camden leave the borough for their secondary education, which puts it in line with a number of other boroughs, but education leaders say they want to bring this figure down.
The news of the pilot project comes as London schools continue to be praised for the progress they have made in recent years.
The capital now consistently exceeds the national average on the benchmark of five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, despite nearly a quarter of students qualifying for free school meals.
Madeleine Holt, a former BBC Newsnight presenter and founder of Meet the Parents, said the meetings allowed parents to ask questions that might not be answered at standard school open days.
She told TES: “The reason it works is that it’s quite homespun, it’s not slick, it’s parent to parent, there’s no vested interest. There’s an understandable fear if you don’t know people at those schools.
“The only way to break down that ignorance and fear is to actually present to these parents the children who are at these schools and their parents, evaluate stuff that’s immeasurable, that you can’t stick in a league table or stick on a website…and make your own mind up.”
Schools changed so quickly, she said, it was important for parents to have up-to-date information.
She added: “The idea is that it’s giving them first hand evidence or the latest story…plus I think we all kind of perceive these secondary schools through the prism of our own education 25 years earlier.”
Previously, she said, a Meet the Parents meeting had successfully convinced 30 sets of parents from her own “incredibly middle class” London primary school to look around a great school that was still struggling to shake off its bad reputation.
She said that schools and parents benefitted greatly when a school was a better reflection of the community as a whole. It led to raised aspirations over all, and children were not burdened with tiring commutes that eat into their downtime.
“I’m with Alan Bennett with the idea that if everybody went to their local school, the whole atmosphere in this country would be lighter, would be different” she said.
Councillor Angela Mason, cabinet member for children at Camden Council, added that the high number of affluent families in the area meant many sent their children to private school.
“We want parents to have as much information about secondary schools as we can give them and we want to encourage more parents to choose Camden.
“The whole point is there are quite a lot of myths that develop and it takes a long time to turn this around.”