The good, the bad and the ghastly

The sixth edition of 'The Good Schools Guide' is out. Biddy Passmore looks at the irreverent guide for parents by parents

Westminster School is not for the underdog, Eton is for the children of spivs and toffs - and Stonar School is for ponies.

Yes, The Good Schools Guide is out again. Its judgments, couched in the breezy argot of the upper middle-class mother ( "written by parents for parents") remain as irreverent as ever.

A school hall has "seriously sad cushions"; a small London prep for girls is a "dear little school for toff-ettes"; and St Paul's Boys' School,while "brilliant" academically with a "stunning palatial arts department",has its view of the Thames obscured by "ghastly boarding house buildings.Iand other purpose-built grimbo monstrosities."

Like its predecessors, this sixth edition, edited by Amanda Atha, is based on visits and the views of parents, pupils and staff. It is just as untroubled by the sensibilities of schools - and as cavalier in the face of the squawks from those it has offended. The Provost (chairman of governors) of Eton has taken the Guide to task for likening John Lewis, the headmaster, to a "startled rabbit", Ms Atha reports. There the poor man remains, caught in the headlights. Perhaps it is some consolation that his school is described as "first class all-round" academically and "excellent all-round" for extra-curricular activities. And it is "still the number one boys' public school for social status", although drink remains a problem.

This is not the place for parents to learn about state schools. Of the 350 junior and senior schools included, all but 30 are fee-paying. One of the few that does get in is the London Oratory, the Roman Catholic GM school attended by the Prime Minister's sons. Very disciplined, hard-working, says the Guide but exit "rapid and certain if you (or your child) kick consistently against the unbending pricks of the school's policies".

And attending the new junior department, which specialises in musical training, means an hour-and-a-half's homework a night and an hour's music practice - "Surely a hard enough life without having to wear grey shorts too?" The introduction gives a well-informed account of current developments in the private sector. Most heads are putting a brave face on the disappearance of assisted places, although it will cause real hardship in some cases - and may mean some schools start to slip down the league tables. The other potential threat - abolition of charitable status - has made schools painfully aware of the need to present a caring face (and produced "a sick-making scramble to instigate good works", says the merciless Ms Atha - schools should have done more, earlier).

The Guide comments on the difference between genuine co-eds and the johnny-come-latelys, which have simply added girls to boys' schools - and wonders whether it is a coincidence that the very few single-sex public schools left are so often so good. It notes the popularity of maths A-level, the general dreadfulness of modern languages at secondary level and that dyspraxia has become "the fashionable learning difficulty."

As for bullying, the Guide found a host of anti-bullying policies but gained the impression that there is as much bullying as ever (praise, however, for Michael Mavor, head of Rugby, who has "single-handedly more or less eliminated 150 years' tradition of bullyingIin five years.") The Good Schools Guide, Lucas Publications, Pounds 17.99, available from bookshops or direct on 0181 986 4854 or via http:www.goodschoolsguide.

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