The two women across from me on the 7.05 from Chingford talked all the way to Liverpool Street station in London. Their sole topic of conversation? Their children, of course. More specifically, they were concerned with the quality of education those children were receiving. Clearly, they were both intimately involved in every aspect of each child's learning. They also fervently believed their offspring weren't being sufficiently stretched.
They had two children apiece, all with old-fashioned names: Lily, Agnes, Alfred and Maud. (How far will this strangely English trend go? "Come on, Ethelred, darling, why are you always the last to be ready?") When the children arrived home each afternoon, it was to an extension of the schoolroom they had just left. Out would come the books and the mothers would investigate what they had been doing all day. It was never enough.
The women tried to outdo each other with the complexity and sophistication of the extension activities they set. One demanded that a mammoth list of complicated spellings be learned. Back came the other: not content with single tasks, she made sure her home habitually hummed to the sound of fully integrated learning activities. Each child had their own research project to complete - online, in the library, down at the local museum. All that was left for them to do then was to pick up the degree certificate.
It made me realise what lousy parents my wife and I had been. We were normally aware of what our two kids (now in their early thirties) were doing at school. We dutifully turned up at every parents' evening. We heroically read every word of those tedious "bank of competency statement" reports that were the fashion back in the 1980s and 1990s. And we did what every middle-class parent is required to do and went "up the school" to complain when we thought something wasn't right.
But we didn't ask about their schoolwork and they didn't tell. It was their domain, and surely you're not going to learn to study independently if you're never given any independence? The one time I did get involved in a piece of my daughter's schoolwork, it ended in tears. She was writing a coursework essay for her English literature A level and asked me what I thought of it. I told her (the good and the bad) and she said that I didn't know what I was talking about.
Despite this, both my children managed to get very respectable degrees from universities conventionally thought of as "good". And both went on to secure a master's. You could say that we got lucky. But you might also argue that in such matters you make your own luck.
Could this difference in approaches simply be down to the fact that things have changed such a lot since the Jones children were in school? Maybe in an age of league tables, national curricula and wall-to-wall tests, every parent needs to have two degrees and a teacher training qualification just to keep their children's educational heads above water. Alternatively, I may just have happened upon two very pushy mums. But I doubt it.
Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London, England.