A schools guide for the ambitious middle classes leaves Kenny Frederick unsure whether to laugh or scream
I am not likely to enthuse about this book. My school is not one of the 800 independent and state schools included, and I am committed to the comprehensive ideal. The editors are good enough to point out that if a school is not included in the guide, this does not necessarily mean it is not a good school. I feel better already. Meanwhile, I recommend it as essential reading for anybody involved or interested in the white paper debate.
The argument about schools selecting pupils by ability, aptitude, religion and more especially by social class could not be illustrated more starkly.
This guide is written by and for middle-class, ambitious, socially mobile parents. Its function is to advise parents how to find the best school for their child, but it does little to consider the welfare of anyone else's.
The Good Schools Guide was founded in 1985 by two mothers looking for schools for their children. They visited hundreds of schools and wrote up their experiences; the first edition sold out in a week. However, many schools were greatly offended and banned the editors from their premises, only to find that they appeared in future editions anyway on the basis of the reports and opinions of parents and neighbours. The editors (there is now a team of more than 50) state that their judgments are independent and that they view schools from a parent's point of view. They include schools on the basis of what parents say about them and define "good schools" as those that are good for the children and parents that they serve, which they recognise is not a matter of academic results alone. This still leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
It soon becomes apparent that this book is about state versus private education. Parents buying this book will be those who are considering going private if they don't get their child into one of the "better" state schools. They are warned that they will need approximately pound;100,000-plus to educate privately from nursery to university. The lengthy introduction includes statements that I found offensive. Parents are advised to find out: "Who are the pupils and where do they come from, both geographically and socially? How many Brits and, in particular, how many non-Brits whose first language is not English? Too many of the latter can grind teaching to a halt." The notion that pupils with English as a second language are academically less able and need huge amounts of support is simply not true.
For me, the heart of the book lies in another controversial question: "Do you like the look of the parents, and are you happy for your children to mix with theirs?" Middle-class parents don't want their children mixing with working-class children. If this is not about social exclusion I don't know what is.
I was particularly amused by the helpful advice on what parents should wear when they visit a school, and the importance of "projecting the right image -not too smart but not too dowdy either. No school wants to feel it is attracting dull people." I will certainly pass this advice on to my prospective parents. I am sure they will appreciate it.
The section on how to gain entrance to fee-paying schools is entertaining, even if it made my blood boil. Apparently you need more than money to get in. The registration form has to be completed early; embryos are acceptable at some schools and the lists for many successful schools will close several years before the date of entry. Parents have to prepare for their own interview, and be aware that their child might (even at a very young age) have to take a test or two or demonstrate that they can engage in "meaningful" play.
Much of the guide is devoted to the subject of interviews. It seems coaching is common but is discouraged by the schools. We are told prep schools run their own mock interviews to prepare children but those moving from the state to independent schools are "forced" to take any preparation into their own hands. Proactive parents use manuals and professional coaching techniques to ready their children. We are told of one parent who videoed his daughter to give her positive feedback on her strengths and weaknesses.
It seems the state system is no easier to navigate; the editors explain that the admission system is "a complicated mess". The blatant way in which the guide suggests parents play and beat the system is totally without principle and not a good example for young people.
To meet criteria for admission on religious grounds, parents are advised to start attending church weekly at least a year before conception to have a chance at some schools. The guide also suggests engaging in voluntary work or proving your "social worth" in other ways. Then there is advice to consider "targeted coaching" for those applying to schools which have special admission arrangements or to one of the almost 200 academically selective schools in England. Finally, parents are warned to start looking for a school early, as they may need to move house.
The list is alphabetical and divided into senior and juniorpreparatory schools. Each entry starts with a description of the head, often couched in extremely flowery and subjective language. After the head's name and often an estimate of their age ("early forties" or "mid-fifties"), we get a potted history of their educational background and career. We are also told whether the heads are married and have children, and where the children go to school. Other helpful information provided includes the occupation of the head's spouse, if any. How is this relevant to the quality of the school? As well as brief descriptions of the head's leadership style ("informal, friendly but a strong leader"), some entries include physical appearance ("tall, eloquent lady"). I shudder to think how my entry would read. I hated The Good Schools Guide, but I am sure there are many people out there who will love it.
Kenny Frederick is head of George Green community school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets